Sunday, September 26, 2010

Review: Paley Music Festival

Sept. 26, First English Lutheran Church, Richmond

If Alexander Paley weren't the most virtuosic pianist to perform in Richmond during most seasons, which he is, his fall music festival would still be an event to anticipate and savor thanks to his practice of selecting obscure music that's well worth hearing. This extends beyond the four-hands piano literature explored by Paley and his wife, Pei-Wen Chen, and beyond his signature Russian repertory.

One of this year's happiest discoveries, Clara Schumann's Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17, opened the festival's final program. The wife of Robert Schumann and mentor and soulmate of Johannes Brahms was one of the finest pianists of the 19th century. Her trio, however, is not especially piano-centric; the violin plays at least as prominent a role, and the cello is more than a supportive voice, especially in the slow movement.

Paley joined violinist Akemi Takayama and cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw in a performance deeply immersed in romantic temperament and spirit, persuading this listener, at least, that the piece deserves to be rated alongside the far better-known piano trios of Mendelssohn.

An even more obscure selection, Johann Sobeck's Duo concertant on themes from Mozart's "Don Giovanni," proved to be pleasant but decidedly lesser music. Although Sobeck, a Czech clarinetist, was a contemporary of Brahms and Dvořák, this piece's style echoes music of earlier vintage. Sobeck's choice of the aria "La ci darem la mano" for the theme and variations that occupy most of the work is another link to the past; the tune was a popular subject for T&Vs and fantasies from Beethoven, Chopin and other composers of the early 19th century.

Clarinetist Charles West, French horn player Patrick Smith and Paley played the Sobeck jovially and sonorously. Smith's warmly lyrical first statement of the "La ci darem" theme set the tone for what followed.

Paley, violinist Takayama, cellist Shaw and violist Doris Lederer closed the program with one of the staples of chamber music, Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47. The string players, who comprise three-quarters of the Audubon Quartet, were very much on one another's stylistic and expressive wavelengths. Paley reined in his customary gusto to complement his collaborators.

Next year's 14th edition of the Paley Festival will be scheduled a few weeks later in the fall, in an effort to avoid conflicts with other musical events. (This year's festival was staged on the same weekend as the opening of the Richmond Symphony's season and the Claremont Trio's season-opener for Virginia Commonwealth University's Rennolds Chamber Concerts.) For 2011, Paley and Chen plan to survey the four-hands piano music of Mozart, and the maestro is looking at chamber works by Medtner and Taneyev and solo-piano music of Schubert.