Music review: Pianist Alexander Paley takes on Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff

Michael Paley/Handout - Alexander Paley.

Two monumental musical works emerged just before the onset of World War I. Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary Rite of Spring and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32, for piano remain in the concert repertoire to this day. Both works demand extremes of technical agility, physical power and intellectual acumen — but up to a point. Moldovan pianist Alexander Paley, who has been making waves everywhere, brought this music to a packed audience Saturday at the Westmoreland Congregational Church in Bethesda.

For the Stravinsky, Paley paired with his wife, Peiwen Chen, in the composer’s four-hand (on one keyboard) arrangement of the orchestral score. But the two bypassed Stravinsky’s incredibly refined use of instrumental color, a main element that “tells” the folk tale underpinning of the piece. Instead, people witnessed a blitzkrieg, an endless pounding of jackhammers gone berserk on the keys. Who on Saturday would have known that Stravinsky’s score is ingeniously picturesque, with visual images highlighted by superimposed rhythms and harmonies? The pianists sped past all these opportunities to tell the story. Speed and noise also obliterated the arrival of Part 2. By the end of the Stravinsky workout, it seemed that some keys on the gigantic Bluethner grand needed retuning.

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But Paley partly redeemed himself with Rachmaninoff’s phenomenal and sometimes harrowing Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32. Although he did incline to the attack mode, Paley also offered some impassioned playing. And his overwhelming agility and lucid expressivity came through in the way he shaped phrases, stroked the keys, enunciated pungent rhythmic patterns and defined prime areas of the musical landscape. With these techniques, Paley opened up structures not obvious at first, exposing their evocative agenda — the larger introspective moods and the symphonic architecture underpinning everything. In short, Paley underlined their breadth, envisioning them as tone poems as evocative as those of Richard Strauss.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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