Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Paley's 13th

Alexander Paley’s annual music festival in Richmond, which began with the Russian-émigré virtuoso playing for several dozen people crowded around his piano in a bookstore, returns this weekend for its 13th season in the more comfortable setting of First English Lutheran Church.

Paley and Pei-Wen Chen, his wife and four-hands piano partner, will be joined by two musicians based at Virginia Commonwealth University, clarinetist Charles West and French horn player Patrick Smith, and by three members of the Audubon Quartet, violinist Akemi Takayama, violist Doris Lederer and cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw, in a wide-ranging assortment of piano and chamber music.

Paley and Chen, who lately have been touring more actively as a four-hands duo, will sample that piano literature, playing the original version of Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien” and his Suite No. 2 in C major (both on Sept. 24), and Debussy’s Divertissement and the Sonata, Op. 22, by the Anglo-French composer Georges Onslow (both on Sept. 25). As a solo pianist, Paley will perform two sonatas by the Russian Nikolai Medtner (Sept. 24).

The four-hands literature, Paley says, is by its nature more intimate, "more music for the salon than solo-piano or two-piano music is." Several of the pieces on his programs, such as the Tchaikovsky capriccio, were composed originally for four-hands piano; their orchestral versions came later.

The golden age of four-hands was the 19th century, and most performances were given either by composers and closely related partners (spouses, students, etc.) or by amateurs playing at home. Amateurs of that time, however, were accomplished, technically and musically – semi-pro, or close to it, by modern standards – so the best examples of the four-hands literature are anything but amateurish.

Another distinguishing characteristic of four-hands piano music is that performers must focus on quality rather than quantity of sound, Paley says. The effort to create a "huge" piano sound gives way to "thinking more like a conductor working to bring the best sounds out of an orchestra."

The festival will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann with performances of his familiar Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47, and of the far more rarely played Piano Trio in G minor of Schumann’s wife, Clara (both on Sept. 26). Another chamber staple, Franck’s Violin Sonata, is on the Sept. 25 program.

Two more rarities round out this year’s programming: Georges Enescu’s Concert Piece for viola and piano (Sept. 25) and the Duo concertant on themes from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” for clarinet, horn and piano by the 19th-century Czech clarinetist and composer Johann Sobeck (Sept. 26).

Admission is free; donations are accepted.
First English Lutheran Church is on Stuart Circle (Monument Avenue at Lombardy Street).

Details: (804) 355-9185; http://www.paleyfestival.info/