Though the weather outside Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center was clammy and the sun was obcured by a dense fog, inside the warm and inviting performance space the atmosphere was all bright—Charlie Albright, that is. The 26-year-old piano sensation gave an impassioned and masterful performance of a varied and challenging program.
Forgive the pun; it was repeating in my head all night, not as a poor attempt at humor but rather an energetic, near giddy reaction to the electric spirit of the evening. Albright, who possesses titanic technical skill and much emotional sensitivity, parted the gloomy skies with a sparkling stage-side manner (he introduced every piece from a nearby microphone), a welcoming sense of informality (“don’t be afraid to cough!”), and the artistic willingness and musical chops to include improvisation on the program, a still-rare skill that is mercifully being resuscitated by our best artists. More on that last point later.
The program opened, after a brief and casual introduction at the mic, with a pair of Schubert Impromptus from Op. 90, #3 and #2 respectively. From the first gentle arpeggios of the G-flat to its close, Albright crafted the work with intricate and heartfelt pianistic artistry, often leaning in toward the keys not in a rehearsed histrionic but a honest gesture of intimate communion with his instrument. It was the perfect prelude to the evening to come. The second impromptu was spun freely, and took on a nearly improvisatory feel.
For the main substantial work on the first half, Albright interestingly chose an unfinished, or rather finished-yet-renounced, work by Janacek. Sonata 1.X. 1905 first ended up in a fire and then was thrown in a river by the composer, who felt it unworthy; copies of the first two movements were saved by an attentive soloist. The work, inspired by a vicious crackdown Janacek witnessed on a demonstration by the students of Brno, is at the same time dark and wounded, and eternally hopeful. In this work, which poses significant technical challenges, Albright flexed his spiritual muscle, embodying the Janacek-ethos with sincerity and empathy which one hopes will continue to develop over what is sure to be a long and successful performing career.
At this point Albright did something that, frustratingly, is still considered wildly out of the ordinary—he improvised on the spot. Once considered an essential musical skill (which it still is), improvisation had all but disappeared from the concert stage, but recently has started making a comeback. It is in a sense a quintessential musical skill, requiring a deep, instinctual knowledge of the structures of music and how to bend them to one’s wishes. But it also involves courage, wit, and vulnerability—and a little bit of flash. Albright, whom we all probably felt comfortable calling Charlie by that point in the evening, asked random attendees not for a tune upon which to improvise but rather for a set of individual notes—a much more challenging proposition, but one executed with skill and seeming ease.
The second half consisted of Chopin’s complete Op. 25 Etudes, which were each formed with virtuosity and sensitivity. After explaining how each etude was centered on a particular technical skill, Albright launched into the 12-piece set, forming it with the coherency of a piano symphony. The playful “Butterfly” etude gave way somehow logically to the thundering octaves of the B minor, and in the frenetic A minor (#4) and F minor (#2), his hands flew across the keys so fast the eye could not distinguish which was which. To close, Albright offered the firework-laden Volodos transcription of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, and when the crowd refused to leave, Albright returned to the bench with the Liszt-Schumann Widmung as the perfect nightcap.
Overall, the atmosphere was engaging, warm, jovial, and intimate—everything a recital experience should be. The welcoming and beautiful Shalin Liu performance space was the perfect venue for such an event, even if no sun or waterfront features were discernible through the upstage wall of windows. If it helped us focus more on the skill and depth of Albright’s playing, then the fog was welcome. As for Albright himself, he did well to engage and share insights into the works he was bringing to life, with a lightness that included phrases like “when I was much younger”. The informality never undermined the deep music being made, and the flash was always employed for fun rather than self-aggrandizement. It was nice to see concert elements like improvising and engaging with one’s audience—Albright did all both, and the riotous applause is all the proof needed of their efficacy. The concert was a “getting to know you” session, which worked perfectly for this rising star.