Review: Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley & Pei-wen Chen, piano four-hands
Jan. 9, St. Luke Lutheran Church

“Poor Czerny,” Alexander Paley sighed shortly before he and his wife and piano partner, Pei-wen Chen, played Carl Czerny’s four-hands piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor.

Paley wasn’t lamenting the arrangement, but the reputational baggage that Czerny carries among pianists, many (most?) of whom nurse a lifelong grudge against the creator of the exercises at which they labored as youngsters.

Czerny was a master piano pedagogue – teacher of Liszt and Schubert, among many others – and was the most prominent student of Beethoven and source of some of the earliest published reminiscences of the composer. His keyboard mastery and immersion in Beethoven both inform the rarely performed arrangement of the Ninth that Paley and Chen revived in the first of two programs in the winter installment of Paley’s Richmond music festival.

The Ninth Symphony, written for what in the 1820s would have been a very large orchestra with vocal soloists and chorus in its “Ode to Joy” finale, is as far removed from piano music as any work that Beethoven composed. This arrangement, as close to a transcription as Czerny could manage, is not a successful transformation of the score into piano music.

Czerny’s treatment effectively conveys the Ninth’s portent, notably in the first movement and the turbulent recitative of the finale, and reveals many of the score’s internal voicings more clearly than many orchestral performances. It is less effective in framing Beethoven’s big tunes and long-lined lyricism, and sounds rather muddled in some of the more complex vocal-orchestral sections of the finale.

Paley and Chen, playing the Czerny arrangement for the first time in public, gave it a very measured reading, slow in the scherzo and in the march tune of the finale, very slow in the adagio, which would have seemed endless if they hadn’t played it with such intensity. Their concentration was impressive, their stamina awesome.

Alexander Paley plays solo-piano works by Beethoven, Liszt and Scriabin at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at St. Luke Lutheran Church, 7757 Chippenham Parkway. Donation requested. Details: (804) 665-9516; http://paleymusicfestival.org

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