Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: Paley Music Festival

Sept. 27, First English Lutheran Church, Richmond

Pianist Alexander Paley’s 12th Richmond music festival concluded much as it had started, at least stylistically.

Paley, joined by violinist Kathy Judd and cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw, wrapped up three days of music-making with Chopin’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8. In this and other early works (most familiarly, the two piano concertos), Chopin decorated impassioned and/or sentimental themes with florid treble figurations. This compositional style was inherited from a previous generation of Central European pianist-composers, among them Carl Czerny, whose "Brilliant Grand Sonata" opened this year’s Paley Festival.

Passionate expression and busy fingers are two qualities Paley thrives on, and the Chopin brought out the best in his keyboard technique and his collaborative gifts in chamber music. This piece is essentially a concerto for piano with bare-bones string accompaniment; it’s scarcity in concert programs may stem from the challenge string players face in being heard alongside the elaborate piano lines, while not getting more than a few cameo solos. Judd and Shaw used their moments constructively, the violinist especially soaring nearly to the pianist’s expressive elevation.

Clarinetist Charles West joined Paley and Shaw in a reading of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio that was both emphatic and lyrical. West played with his characteristic balance of refined tone and vigorous projection. Paley emphasized the grand scale of Brahms’ piano writing, but also sensitivity to the harmonic explorations found in the composer’s later works.

Paley and his wife, Pei-Wen Chen, frequently use the Richmond festival to revive obscure arrangements and transcriptions for piano four-hands. This year, the featured obscurity was a suite that Rimsky-Korsakov arranged from his opera "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya." The opera, rarely staged in Russia and hardly ever elsewhere, may be the most Wagnerian score written by a Russian composer, a kind of "Rheingold" in Slavic dialect. This piano version also plays up the melodramatic quality of Rimsky’s depictions of passion and conflict. The duo’s performance was sweeping, if at times a bit unruly.

Paley and his small crew of church and community volunteers rounded up the largest audiences in the festival’s history – no mean feat on the weekend of Yom Kippur and the Richmond Symphony’s first concerts in the renovated Carpenter Theatre, which conflicted with two of three Paley Festival programs. Not long ago, this festival was in dire straits. Now it seems to be in good shape for a long run.