in: Reviews

November 1, 2010

The Kid Has Chops: Albright at Gardner

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Before a packed house at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on a beautiful fall day that otherwise might have kept many at home raking leaves and stockpiling the Halloween candy, the annual Wendy Shattuck Young Artist Concert presented pianist Charlie Albright in a program featuring a late Haydn piano sonata, a Janácek sonata, and the Schumann Carnaval, among other things. Albright, who is still an undergraduate in the joint degree program at Harvard and New England Conservatory, is already a seasoned concert performer, although this season is his “official” debut season, with recitals in New York and Washington DC, in addition to this one in Boston.

Albright’s program was judiciously chosen, beginning with Haydn’s Sonata No. 62 in E flat (Landon numbering), Hob. XVI:52, generally reckoned the last Haydn piano sonata, dating from 1794. Albright treated this as if it were Beethoven, with powerful surges, active pedaling, and rat-a-tat precision in the hammered repeated notes of the finale. No complaints from this quarter, as this was a remarkably forward-looking work, with rhythmic and harmonic features that presage the Romantics — one small example is that while the outer movements are in E flat, the central Adagio is in E major. We were not fully convinced that Haydn, even in 1794, would have gone for “modern” ornamentation style, as Albright did in the slow movement, but then again neither did he hold back the sonority of a modern piano to approximate a fortepiano. This was, despite passages of beautiful delicacy, and a thoroughgoing clarity, a manly and assertive Haydn, frankly a welcome counterweight to a lot of the interpretations we have heard.

Not a whole lot of sustained writing for solo piano by Leos Janácek survives. There was a youthful sonata, now lost, some evocative pieces such as In the Mist, and this Sonata 1.X 1905, itself a fragment consisting of two movements, the finale to which Janácek composed and then destroyed. There is also some disagreement over what the title “1 October, 1905,” with the subtitle “From the street,” commemorates. Some, like Slonimsky, thought it refers to the ill-fated 1905 uprising in Russia, in which case it makes an interesting contemporary counterpart to Shostakovich’s symphony on the same subject; others point to a more local event, the slaying of a protester in Brno by the Austro-Hungarian police. Either way, without the rounded-out form a finale would have provided, what remains is a poignant and evocative tone poem. The first movement, titled “Presentiment,” is a rush of romantic washes and swells quashed at critical points by a downward-thrusting motif of a broken octave, which eventually closes the movement as a premonitory echo. The slow movement, “Death,” is mournful in its outer sections and agitated within. Albright achieved powerful sonic effects through sudden pedal releases, and in general conveyed the brooding gloom hovering over both movements.

The first half of the program ended with Concert Arabesques on “The Beautiful Blue Danube” by Adolf (also known as Andrey) Schulz-Evler, a contemporary of Janácek’s who could not have been farther removed in spirit. Despite his German name, Schulz-Evler was born in Poland and spent the bulk of his professional career at the conservatory in Kharkov, in Ukraine. These Arabesques were once a popular encore piece, especially favored by Josef Lhévinne. This sort of thing, flashy transcriptions and elaborations – short of variation — on other people’s music, was a staple of 19th-century recitals that seems to have faded coincidentally with stronger copyright protection for the original tunes. Schulz-Evler’s work is well named, as it does not so much offer variations as prodigiously convoluted embellishments on the various tunes in Strauss’s waltz tone-poem, seemingly (if memory tell us true) in the same order as in the original. After the cerebral exertion and emotional engagement of the Haydn and the Janácek, this was pure escapism, but escapism that left no doubt of the formidable chops wielded by Albright.

The second half of the program was given over primarily to Robert Schumann’s groundbreaking Carnaval, op. 9, a menagerie of  twenty-one short pieces of wide-ranging moods (though never gloomy or disconsolate), including many open or hidden character portraits. His carnival acts include his lady friends, Ernistine von Fricken (as “Estrella”) and of course Clara Wieck (“Chiarina”), some of his musical idols (Paganini and a dead-on Chopin), and himself in his complementary personae: the dreamy Eusebius and the pugnacious Florestan. Over all is a single musical idea, two different spellings of ASCH, which appear in each piece but are openly acknowledged only in one. It all comes to a head in the finale, the longest of the pieces, the famous march of the Band of David against the Blue Meanies, er, the Philistines. The work as a whole is ebullient and of transcendent technical difficulty in places. Albright took these matters firmly in hand, naturally, and attacked the piece in grand historical style with youthful gusto. In some of the pieces we could have wished for greater dynamic contrast and variation in touch, but this was, on the whole, an immensely satisfying reading, to which the audience concurred on its feet.

Charlie Albright wrapped up with two encores, one the ubiquitous La Campanella etude of Liszt, on the Paganini theme, tossed off with grace and aplomb; the other was the dreamy Chopin etude op. 25, No. 2. All in all, if you were going to be indoors Sunday afternoon, this was the place to be.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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