Monday, September 29, 2008

Review: Paley festival

Sept. 27-28, First English Lutheran Church, Richmond

Alexander Paley’s fall-weekend music festivals in Richmond wouldn’t be complete without at least one selection that tested the pianist’s technical and interpretive capacities and the listener’s comprehension and endurance. In this 11th edition of the festival, that piece was Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 3 in F minor, known as the "Concerto without Orchestra."

As its nickname implies, the sonata draws upon the full range of tonal, coloristic and dynamic resources that a pianist can summon. Its movements are large, often sprawling, and it makes grand, passionate statements. Its passions are most aroused in the first movement, in which a motif of Beethovenian simplicity is repeated with growing intensity, and in a set of variations on a profoundly desolate theme by Schumann’s wife, Clara Wieck.

Music propelled by huge chords and torrents of notes expressing high passion is what Paley plays best. No wonder he was attracted to the Schumann sonatas, which he presented in chronological order as the opening selections in each concert of this festival. (He plans to play all three in a single program in future recital dates.) The F minor Sonata, which he played Sept. 28 concert, is the most challenging of the three; and while the pianist has almost all of its notes securely under his fingers, some of its contours remain sketchy. He has yet to tame the decorative spinoffs from the allegro’s motif, which sound like digressions, or the finale’s tendency to sound like random, hyperactive noodling.

The Sonata No. 2 in G minor, opening the Sept. 27 program, was played with Schumann’s original, relatively undernourished rondo finale. (Afterward, Paley said he will substitute the later, more developed final movement in future performances.) The pianist emphasized the rhapsodic, Chopinesque quality of the sonata’s first and second movements, shaping the latter’s halting phrases quite effectively, and treated the scherzo with suitable impulsiveness.

The Sept. 27 concert centered on two piano trios, in which Paley was joined by violinist Kathy Judd and cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw. In Mendelssohn’s Trio in D minor, moderate tempos highlighted Shaw’s big, bassy cello tone in the first movement and gave both string players expressive space in the andante. Comparably measured tempos in Schubert’s Trio in B flat major directed the ear to the tonal brilliance of Paley’s Blüthner piano – the Schubert was perhaps the best showcase of this German instrument’s uniquely resonant high register – but also drove home the repetitious quality of this piece. (Is there a more endless movement in all of chamber music than the closing rondo of this trio? You’d swear not as it goes around, comes around, and ’round and ’round . . . )

Clarinetist Charles West, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has performed with Paley in all his Richmond festivals, delivered this edition’s most polished chamber performance in the final program, playing Brahms’ Sonata in E flat major, Op. 120, No. 2, as a robust, long-breathed stroll on an Indian summer afternoon. West’s command of his instrument’s tonal and expressive resources was on full display here; Paley was a strong but supportive partner.

Paley and his wife, Pei-Wen Chen, presented another cycle in this edition of the festival, playing Weber’s three sets of short pieces for piano four-hands. The first two sets (Opp. 3 and 10) are light, generally cheerful examples of 19th-century domestic keyboard music, the stuff of courtships in the afternoon and family musicales in the evening. The third set, "Eight Pieces," Op. 60, is a bit grander in dimension and technical challenge. The couple’s Sept. 28 performance peaked in the fourth piece of the set, a quasi-gallop, and in the penultimate march, the tune that more than a century later would be revived as the centerpiece of Hindemith’s "Symphonic Metamorphosis" on Weber themes.

Paley and Chen also played Schumann’s "Bilder von Osten" ("Pictures from the East"), capturing Slavic and Magyar accents lurking within the composer’s high-German musical diction.

The pianist and Linus Ellis, associate minister for music at First English Lutheran Church and chief local organizer of the festival, announced that a 12th edition is planned for the weekend of Sept. 25-27, 2009.