Review: Alexander Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley & Pei-wen Chen, pianos
Amiram Ganz, violin
Sept. 28-29, St. Luke Lutheran Church

The 21st season of Alexander Paley’s Richmond music festival was devoted to French music of the late-romantic and impressionist periods. Following performances by Paley of solo-piano works by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in first program (which I could not attend), the pianist was joined by violinist Amiram Ganz in the violin sonatas of Camille Saint-Saëns and Ravel, and then by Paley’s wife and duo/four-hands piano partner, Pei-wen Chen, in duo works by Ravel and Cécile Chaminade.

Ganz, a native of Uruguay who studied alongside Paley at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory in the 1970s and has performed regularly with the pianist over the years (including in the first Richmond Paley festival in 1998), proved to be a fluent interpreter in the markedly contrasting idioms of Saint-Saëns and Ravel.

The violinist brought to Saint-Saëns’ sonatas No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75, and No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 102, both warmth and a declamatory tone suited to a composer who melded Beethovenian classical form with romantic sensibility. He found a better vehicle in the first sonata’s dramatic expressive sections and greater abundance of melody, while dealing straightforwardly with the second sonata’s more formulaic classical essaying.

Ganz really excelled in the two Ravel sonatas, striking the right balance between echoes of romantic style and anticipation of impressionist harmonic language in the early Sonata in A minor (known as the “Posthume” because it was not published in Ravel’s lifetime), and realizing the wide range of expression and style, from dense-packed modernism to blues to Ravel’s updated twist on old-time virtuoso pyrotechnics, in the more familiar Sonata in G major.

Paley was consistently on Ganz’s interpretive wavelength, although his energy and intensity and the sonic character of his favored Blüthner piano produced some imbalances between violin and piano, notably in the turbulent outer movements of the Saint-Saëns D minor. Balances and tonal inflections were admirable, though, where they counted for most, in the Ravel sonatas.

Bright-toned pianos in a bright acoustical setting exacted considerable costs in the final program. Paley and Chen, playing a pair of Blüthners, produced painfully brittle and often congested tone in Ravel’s two-piano version of “La Valse,” a work whose harmonic density and explosive climaxes carry more weight in the orchestral version and more clarity in the solo-piano version.

The same problems arose at high volumes in the duo’s treatments of the malagueña and feria sections of Ravel’s “Rapsodie espagnole,” a work better-known in the orchestral version that was introduced shortly after this two-piano version. Paley and Chen compensated with exceptionally sensitive projection of the atmospherics of the “Prélude à la nuit” and the sensuously rhythmic habanera section.

For many listeners, the discovery of these concerts was Chaminade, a long-lived (1857-1944) Parisian composer and pianist who, despite being a contemporary of modernists remained a romantic in style.

Paley and Chen played two Chaminade’s major two-piano works, the ”Valse Carnavalesque,” Op. 73, and “Duo symphonique,” Op. 117. The former, true to its title, is festive and full of swirling pianistic effects. The latter is somewhat sterner stuff, with materials treated in cyclical form à la César Franck, but still full of decorous keyboard effects exchanged by the two instruments. They, and an encore of Chaminade’s Spanish-accented “La Sévillane,” received animated and affectionate treatment from the two pianists.

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