Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Paley Festival

Sept. 27 & 29, First English Lutheran Church

Alexander Paley’s Richmond music festival, which marked its 16th season this year, may be the most international music event of the year – I know of no other in these parts at which four or more languages are heard routinely in intermission chatter. Performances often challenge listeners’ stamina, musical and physical; most programs prominently feature obscure or neglected repertory, especially for piano four-hands.

Opening night was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s “Grand Sonata” in G major, Op. 37, and the 13 preludes of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 32. On the second night: Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in the composers’ four-hands arrangements, plus Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 80. And a chamber-music finale, with the Clarinet Sonata, Op. 129, of Charles Villiers Stanford; Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13, of Gabriel Fauré; and “Contrasts” of Béla Bartók. That’s esoteric programming by just about any standard.

What draws listeners – more this year than any in recent memory, according to organizers – are the prospect of impassioned music-making from Paley, and the pianist’s often volatile interaction with his four-hands partner (and spouse), Pei-Wen Chen, and chamber-music collaborators, this year Virginia Commonwealth University-based clarinetist Charles West and violinist Marie-André Chevrette, a member of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

There was no shortage of passion in Paley’s opening Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff program. The former’s “Grand Sonata” demands an unfettered, all-in performance, which it received in a reading so intense and propulsive that at times sounded to be improvised on the spot. Paley maintained similarly high intensity in the louder and/or faster preludes in the Rachmaninoff set. Quieter preludes, generally alternating with the extroverted ones, got a softer touch without any diminution of urgency or focus.

I missed the middle program to attend Joyce Yang’s recital at VCU. (Scroll down for that review).

The closing chamber-music matinee was dominated, not surprisingly, by “Contrasts,” the remarkable trio that Bartók wrote in the 1930s for violinist Joseph Szigeti and clarinetist Benny Goodman, with the composer playing the piano part.

At the time of this work’s premiere, Goodman was a superstar of the reigning pop-music style, swing; but, unlike other concert works written for the clarinetist (Stravinsky’s “Ebony” Concerto for example), “Contrasts” avoids pop or jazz references. Its accents and gestures come from Hungarian and other Balkan folk musics – as elaborate and assertive as those of the jazz man’s “licorice stick,” but quite different in style and in the clarinet’s interaction with other instruments.

West, Chevrette and Paley gave an exuberant and generally stylish account of the Bartók. The program’s highlights, however, were the preceding pair of sonatas.

Stanford, a prolific Anglo-Irish composer and teacher of the late Victorian-Edwardian period, was educated in Germany; his Clarinet Sonata, dating from around 1912, echoes the German high-romantic style of Brahms or Bruch, filtered through that peculiarly English combination of decorum and nostalgia. West emphasized those qualities in a warm, at times wistful, account. Paley’s accompaniment was more Germanic in tone, but understated enough to give West the interpretive lead.

The more familiar Fauré sonata received an elegantly emotive reading from violinist Chevrette – it sounds as if this is one of her recital showpieces – with sympathetic and nicely nuanced accompaniment from Pei-Wen Chen.