Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Paley Music Festival

Sept. 25, First English Lutheran Church, Richmond

Alexander Paley is a pianist of seemingly boundless stamina, and he asks a lot of staying power of his audience – at least the audience of his annual festival in Richmond.

The opening concert of this year’s installment consisted of the massive "Brilliant Grand Sonata" of Carl Czerny and all 24 of Rachmaninoff’s preludes, altogether about two and a half hours of high-intensity piano music (mercifully, with two intermissions).

Czerny, generally known for his keyboard exercises, packs both dexterous busyness and rhapsodic expression into this Sonata in C minor for piano four-hands. The composer and his most accomplished pupil, Franz Liszt, frequently played this piece (Liszt doing the treble busyness). In this performance, Paley played the glittering treble figurations, while his wife, Pei-Wen Chen, played the bass line, which contains most of the work’s thematic and structural content. The piece, especially its large opening movement, anticipates the style of Chopin, and the two pianists made that linkage clear in their interpretation.

Paley will be taking the Rachmaninoff preludes on tour in the spring; this was the first time he has played the early Prelude in F major, the ten Op. 23 preludes and the 13 of Op. 32 as a cycle. It is a deep immersion in both Rachmaninoff’s psyche and his piano style, at least as they manifested themselves before he left Russia. The preludes, played in sequence, veer between visceral energy and bittersweet reverie; dark timbres prevail, but there are surprising flashes of light (and lightness of touch).

Paley pounced on the big sonorities and animal vitality of the more assertive pieces – at times, to the point that his bright-toned Bl├╝thner piano was swamped in overtones. At more moderate tempos and quieter dynamics, the instrument, and his handling of it, revealed a palette of tone colors one rarely hears in Rachmaninoff.

The Alexander Paley Music Festival continues with piano and chamber works by Hindemith, Mendelssohn, Arensky and others, at 8 p.m. Sept. 26, and by Brahms, Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov, at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 27, at First English Lutheran Church, Monument Avenue at Lombardy Street (Stuart Circle), in Richmond. Donations requested. Details: (804) 355-9185;