Review: Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley & Peiwen Chen, pianos
June 8, St. Luke Lutheran Church

This fall’s Paley Music Festival, devoted to Russian music for two pianos, concluded with Alexander Paley and Peiwen Chen, Paley’s wife and performing partner, delivering a blistering rendition of the most familiar work of all on their three programs, Shostakovich’s Concertino, Op. 94.

Written for the composer’s son, Maxim (who went on to become better-known as a conductor than as a pianist), the Concertino melds deep, rather dark Russian melodies with bumptious rhythms associated with circus music, producing a weird balance of lightness and darkness, extroversion and introspection.

Paley and Chen negotiated this shifting soundscape without missteps and with keen sensitivity to expression, tone color and balances between their two instruments.

Their work was no less impressive – maybe more so – in two suites by Anton Arensky. His Suite No. 3, Op. 26 (“Variations”) is a miniature marathon of nine different takes on a somber, nostalgic theme that recalls Schumann (Clara more than Robert), which Arensky runs through forms and moods as varied as a scherzo, a nocturne, both a minuet and a waltz, triumphal and funeral marches and, finally, an emphatically voiced Polonaise.

The two pianists managed the suite’s sharp contrasts, between the thunderous sonics of the triumphal march and Polonaise and the quicksilver rhythms and intricate instrumental exchanges in the suite’s “Dialogue” and scherzo, and the Chopinesque reveries of the nocturne.

The duo also were reliable explorers of the quasi-Lisztian harmonic explorations of Arensky’s more modestly scaled Suite No. 4, Op. 62.

In both suites, they leaned into the melodies of a composer who was almost as tuneful as Tchaikovsky, although not as gifted in developing those melodies.

The festival’s finale also featured an obscure bit of over-the-top weirdness, Vladimir Rebikov’s “Cauchemar” (“Nightmare”), a “psychological tableaux” that lays ominous, insistent, often elaborate keyboard figures atop a heavy, relentless bass line. If the sorcerer’s apprentice had a very bad dream, it might sound like this.

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