Reviews: Paley Festival

Alexander Paley has long favored cyclical performances of composers’ works.

To mark the 20th anniversary of his Richmond music festival, the pianist and his wife and duo and four-hands partner, Peiwen Chen, played the complete two-piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff in the Sept. 22 opening concert. (Click the link on the preceding post, below, for my review for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)

Then, on Sept. 23, Paley and Daisuke Yamamoto, concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony, played Beethoven’s 10 sonatas for piano and violin in afternoon and evening concerts. Before the festival, Paley said that Yamamoto hesitated only briefly before agreeing to this day-long marathon.

The violinist seemed none the worse for wear in the second concert, not even after playing the mighty “Kreutzer” in A major, Op. 47, ninth of the sonatas, with one more to go – and that final sonata, the G major, Op. 96, is not exactly a cool-down, demanding from the violinist great lyricism at widely varied dynamic levels.

The evening began with the Sonata in A major, Op. 30, No. 1, highlighted by one of the most Mozartian movements Beethoven ever produced, a central adagio for violin with minimal piano accompaniment that could easily pass for a reverie by a heroine from one of Mozart’s operas. Yamamoto played it with a winning combination of ardor and restraint, letting the tune bloom at its own pace.

It was the first of many such moments in his performances, reminders that he’s a musician with the taste and judgment to let a composer speak without a lot of violinistic display or interpretative intervention. He summoned plenty of fire and speedy virtuosity when needed, but was most impressive technically in quieter passages, producing fine-spun tones that one hears too rarely from string players in Beethoven.

Yamamoto also showed an understanding of the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, essential in music such as the hymn-like adagio cantabile of the Sonata in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, and the adagio-as-soliloquy of Op. 96.

Balance between piano and violin, always an issue when these instruments meet, was problematic in the loudest or most emphatic episodes, such as the opening movement of the C minor Sonata and the outer movements of the “Kreutzer.” Paley doesn’t hold back in stormy Beethoven, and the bright tone of Blüthner piano he was playing underscored the volume and impact of his performance.

The pianist was sensitive, though, to the greater prominence of the violin in the later sonatas, especially the last, in which the instrument assumes the first-among-equals role that it would play relative to the piano in the romantic and modern literature.

* * *

The festival’s finale, a matinee on Sept. 24, featured two prime, and markedly good-humored, pieces of Beethoven’s early chamber music, the Horn Sonata in F major, Op. 17, and Quintet in E flat major, Op. 16, for piano and winds, as well as Mozart’s Quintet in E flat major, K. 452, for piano and winds, the work that inspired Beethoven to write his quintet.

Paley was joined in the sonata by James Ferree, the Richmond Symphony’s principal French horn player, and in the quintets by Ferree and two colleagues from the orchestra – oboist Alexandra von der Embse and Thomas Schneider, the symphony’s principal bassoonist – along with clarinetist Charles West, a longtime member of the music faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University and a regular participant in this festival.

Vienna in the late-classical period (c. 1780-1820) was a hotbed of wind writing, both within orchestrations (notably, Mozart’s), in the wind octets known as Harmonie, and in other chamber-music configurations.

A smallish number of such chamber works survive in the active repertory – Mozart’s “Gran Partita,” Schubert’s Octet, some of Franz Danzi’s wind quintets; and some wind-octet arrangements (suites from Mozart and Rossini operas, Beethoven’s reduction of his Seventh Symphony) have been recorded and occasionally performed in concert.

The Mozart and Beethoven quintets are essentially the end of the line for this genre. Most composers of later eras have employed strings in their piano quintets.

That’s a pity, because a wind ensemble can maintain sonic parity readily with a modern piano, even when played by a pianist as assertive as Paley can be. In these performances, the instruments blended consistently, and no solo sounded reticent or recessed. Exchanges among the wind instruments were consistent in voicing and companionable in musical spirit.

All five musicians showed a fine grasp of Mozart’s idiom and Beethoven’s still somewhat tentative expansion on Viennese classical style. (His sonata and quintet carry opus numbers immediately preceding that of the first six string quartets; all date from the 1790s.)

The piano parts of the two quintets are not especiallly elaborate and, for Beethoven, rather understated, even delicate. Paley played accordingly, with crystalline clarity and generally with deference toward the winds.

Ferree, the most accomplished horn player the symphony has had in decades, was robustly declarative in the outer movements of the Beethoven sonata, and treated its slow movement to a songful reading with nicely varied shades of sonority.

The festival closed with an impromptu encore of “Happy Birthday,” closing with Ferree adding a jazzy flourish.

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