Review: Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley & Peiwen Chen, pianos
Sept. 7, St. Luke Lutheran Church

The 21st season of Alexander Paley’s Richmond festival is one of the most unusual, and most artistically concentrated, devoted entirely to Russian works for two pianos, most composed within the two generations of Russian romanticism.

The opening program ranged fairly widely within those generational and stylistic boundaries, beginning with the epically romantic Fantasie, Op. 73, of Anton Rubinstein and continuing with two romantic homages to earlier styles, Anton Arensky’s neo-baroque “Suite in Canon Form,” Op. 65, and Alexander Glazunov’s “Middles Ages Suite,” Op. 79.

In his Fantasie, Rubinstein, the pre-eminent Russian piano virtuoso of the late-19th century, synthesized virtually every keyboard composer and idiom of that century, from Beethoven to Chopin to Liszt and Schumann – an unruly crowd of influences, especially in a sprawling first movement. The work is at its most cogent, and moving, in its concluding set of variations on a bittersweet theme.

Playing a pair of Blüthner concert grands, Paley and Chen emphasized the scale and scope of Rubinstein’s expression, although at highest volume their tone production turned glaring and glassy in the bright acoustic of the St. Luke church sanctuary.

On the heels of the Rubinstein, the Arensky suite sounded like a bon-bon, albeit one with audible, and stylishly apt, references to Bach and other baroque composers who produced suites on dance rhythms.

Glazunov, a prolific late-romantic composer and teacher of a subsequent generation of composers (notably Prokofiev and Shostakovich), wrote the “Middle Ages Suite” in 1902. The suite, originally for orchestra, anticipates many evocations of early music produced by modern composers. Coincidentally, perhaps, the suite’s scherzo pre-echoes the use of the Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”) theme that Rachmaninoff used in his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” while its finale is propelled by a march that sounds a lot like Prokofiev’s famous march from “The Love for Three Oranges.”

The composer’s two-piano arrangement of the suite is one of the more effective keyboard reductions of an orchestral work, retaining much of the original’s tone and color. Paley and Chen ably conveyed the work’s neo-antique elements within its prevailing romantic expressive character.

The Paley Music Festival continues on Sept. 8 with Alexander Paley and Peiwen Chen playing two-piano works by Arensky, Medtner and Leonid Nikolayev at 2 p.m., and works by Arensky, Shostakovich and Vladimir Rebikov at 7:30 p.m., at St. Luke Lutheran Church, 7757 Chippenham Parkway. Details: (804) 665-9516; http://paleymusicfestival.org

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