Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: Paley Music Festival

Sept. 24, First English Lutheran Church, Richmond

Alexander Paley opened the 13th edition of his Richmond music festival with Pei-Wen Chen, his wife and piano partner, playing rarely heard Tchaikovsky and even more rarely heard pieces by Nikolai Medtner.

Just one of the program's four works, Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien," is widely familiar, but not in the original four-hands piano version performed here. Paley and Chen made brilliant work of the closing tarantella and played with verve and joviality in the Italian dances and street songs at the heart of the tone poem; the fanfares that launch the piece lacked the spatial quality that comes through in the orchestral version.

Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 2 in C major, Op. 53, is a more substantial and sonically transparent example of the composer's four-hands writing – indeed, it may be the most symphonically scaled of his piano works – and drew a more balanced and nuanced interpretation from Paley and Chen. Their rhythmic flexibility in the waltz and sensitive rendering of the emotional atmospherics of "Dreams of a Child" were especially satisfying.

Paley played two single-movement sonatas by Medtner, who, like his contemporary Rachmaninoff, was a pianist-composer who spent most his adult life outside Russia. The "Sonata reminiscenza" in A minor, Op. 38, No. 1, sounds very much like Rachmaninoff in bittersweet mode; the "Sonata tragica" in C minor, Op. 39 No. 5, is Russian romanticism fit to a more Germanic frame.

Listeners hearing these pieces for the first time – much but probably not all of this audience (a sizeable portion of which was Russian-speaking) – couldn't have asked for better introductions than these highly animated, sweepingly passionate readings by Paley. Few pianists play Russian music with such intensity and spontaneity, and in the Medtner sonatas Paley had ideal showcases for those qualities.

The festival continues through the weekend with programs of French and German piano and chamber music, in which Paley and Chen will be joined by Virginia Commonwealth University-based clarinetist Charles West and French horn player Patrick Smith and three members of the Audubon Quartet, violinist Akemi Takayama, violist Doris Lederer and cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw.

Further Paley Festival performances are at 8 p.m. Sept. 25 and 3:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at First English Lutheran Church at Stuart Circle (Monument Avenue at Lombardy Street). Donations are requested. Details: (804) 355-9185;