Review: Alexander Paley

Jan. 6, St. Luke Lutheran Church

Pianist Alexander Paley, in the winter concert of his Richmond music festival, etched a high musical contrast as he played the Op. 28 preludes of Frédéric Chopin and “Ten Pieces from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ” Op. 75, by Sergei Prokofiev.

Chopin’s set of 24 preludes, written between 1835 and 1839, likely modeled on or inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s cycles of preludes and fugues in “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” are a cycle that systematically works through all the major and minor keys. The faster pieces also serve as virtuoso keyboard showpieces. Several of the preludes rank among the greatest examples of Chopin’s tone- and mood-painting.

Whether the set was intended to be played in full in public performance, as Paley did in this concert, is debated by musicologists. What’s not debatable is that the whole set can be heard as a nearly comprehensive sampling of the tonal, textural and spiritual effects that Chopin produced in his piano music, and in generations of keyboard writing that followed.

Paley gave full vent to his often explosive temperament in the faster and more note-heavy preludes, such as No. 3 in G major, No. 8 in F sharp minor and No. 16 in B flat minor, at times taxing the capacity of St. Luke’s Cristofori baby grand to project dense clusters of tone without congestion. He coaxed more agreeable and subtly colored tone in more reflective pieces, notably the well-known Prelude No. 15 in D flat major (known as the “Raindrop”) and the epically solemn Prelude No. 20 in C minor.

Prokofiev’s piano reduction of selections from his greatest ballet score presents a different set of challenges. “Romeo and Juliet” was one of the composer’s most masterful orchestral works, and many of that orchestration’s coloristic and expressive effects do not translate readily to the keyboard. The listener is often reminded in this score that the piano is a percussive instrument.

While the most familiar of the pieces, “The Montagues and the Capulets,” survives the transition from orchestra to keyboard with its grimly heavy march tread intact, dances such as the Minuet and “Dance of the girls with lilies” are markedly more angular than in the orchestration, and moodier sections, such as “Young Juliet” and “Romeo and Juliet before parting,” are almost different pieces of music in the piano version.

Paley played the Prokofiev score with audible fluency and affection, and without hurrying its more turbulent passages.

Scoring silence

The New York Times’ Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, focusing on a recital by clarinetist Marton Fröst and pianist Henrik Mawe as part of the “Live Music Meditation” series at Princeton University, examines the constructive role of silence both within music and around performances of it:

David Felberg, a violinist and conductor who directs a similar series, Chatter, in Albuquerque, tells Fonseca-Wollheim that silence serves as “a bit of a palate-cleanser. It’s almost like you’re fresh and ready to listen to the music.”

I can attest to that from personal experience. Some years ago, while working on assorted household projects, I heard no music for nearly three days. After that fast, the first music I was exposed to – keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, as it happened – I heard as I had not heard music for many years.

After writing about that experience, I was invited by the University of Richmond’s Jennifer Cable to help her students replicate that experience. Few managed it. Music was omnipresent in their environment – they couldn’t escape, even for a few hours.

These days, silence has to be programmed.