Review: Alexander Paley

Jan. 14, St. Luke Lutheran Church

Any classical concert that ends with a march “against the Philistines” is timely; considering the past week, especially timely.

That march, the finale of Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” Op. 9, concluded the Winter Weekend of pianist Alexander Paley, whose fall festival has been a fixture of Richmond’s musical scene for two decades.

Both “Carnaval” and Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, which opened the program, might have been composed with a pianist like Paley in mind, a master of the technical and expressive tour de force. His forceful technique – at its most forceful taxing the capacities of St. Luke Lutheran Church’s baby grand – was balanced by a sensitivity to finely woven strands of melody and bell-like tones, framed by silences and resonations.

Paley also displayed a gift for sustaining extended paragraphs of musical ideas, giving melodies the right degree of exposure to expose beauty without belaboring it, and placing recurring themes in context.

All those qualities are essential, more overtly in Schumann’s interlinked succession of mood and character portraits – a kind of “Pictures at an Exhibition” with pictures imagined rather than evoked; more subtly but perhaps even more importantly in the Liszt, whose Sturm und Drang and plentiful keyboard filagree elaborately dress up what at essence is a prayer.

In the fall programs of his festival, Paley likes to explore unknown or overlooked repertoire – this year’s edition, scheduled for Sept. 14-16, will be devoted to Russian piano and chamber music. As rewarding as those programs can be, they leave relatively little time for him to play standard repertory.

In returning this time to two old favorites, he did his audience – and quite likely himself – a favor.

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