Review: Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley, piano
Jan. 10, St. Luke Lutheran Church

In the second and final program of the winter installment of pianist Alexander Paley’s Richmond music festival, Paley chose three sonatas from the dawn, high noon and twilight of the romantic era, all three of which cast piano tone and rhetoric in boldface.

The most familiar of the three, Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, the “Appassionata,” was preceded by a Beethoven miniature, the “Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio” in G major, Op. 129, better-known as “Rage over a Lost Penny.” Published in 1828, a year after Beethoven’s death (thus its late opus number), this “Hungarian Rondo,” dating from the mid-1790s, is accented in the classical style of Haydn, with an extra garnish of bumptiousness.

The rondo was an unusual prelude to the “Appassionata,” one of Beethoven’s stormiest and most intensely expressive piano works. Paley played its drama to the hilt, to great effect in the first movement, which he cast as an epic musical soliloquy. The pianist emphasized the introspective quality of the central slow movement, making its contrast with the explosive, headlong finale all the more startling.

From the throbbing – not to say pile-driving – heart of romanticism came Liszt’s “Après une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata,” an epic tone poem of 1849 inspired by Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”

Paley drew a fittingly sharp contrast between the two parts of the piece: An thunderous introductory section evoking the torments of hell, and an elaborated chorale representing heaven. He played the former with a forcefulness that taxed the sonic capacity of St. Luke Church’s baby grand, and traced an expressive arc from extreme delicacy to ecstatic transcendence in the chorale.

Paley closed his program with Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53. Like many of Scriabin’s mature works, this sonata aspires to be more than music. The composer described the piece as a “big poem” and provided a verse epigraph to the music: “I call you to life, O mysterious forces!/Drowned in the obscure depths/Of the creative spirit, timid/Shadows of life, to you I bring audacity!”

The pianist audibly pounced on the “mysterious forces” and “audacity,” milking every conceivable bit of sonic drama from the score while playing its more subtle, coloristic elements as if the sonata were a product of the French impressionist composers.

Following the announced program, Paley played Alexander Siloti’s transcription of Ravel’s Kaddish, dedicating this musical treatment of the Jewish mourning hymn to the memory of Catherine Patterson, a longtime officer and promoter of the Paley Music Festival and other arts ventures in the Richmond area, who died in November.

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