Pianist Charlie Albright returned to the ISGM with the first of three planned concerts named “Themes and Variations,” this one featuring two such sets each by Mozart and Chopin. Brilliant and fun pianism rewarded those of us who braved the bitterly cold Sunday afternoon. Albright’s marvelous touch came with clearly articulated tones in both hands, left and right as independent as you’ll ever hear, while his stunning technique disappeared into the music. Most striking, however, was the joy he radiated throughout; Albright clearly loves sharing his playing with us.
He began with Mozart’s well-known Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je Maman.” His introductory remarks indicated that he was more focused on what the master did with the tune than on the French folksong source. The “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” antecedent constitutes something of complex meditation on coming of age. He found the complexity in the score itself and brought out Mozart’s richness.
In both of the Mozart works performed here, Albright’s playing was clear and light, with very sparing use of the pedal—mostly for continuity. His wide range of touch comprised legato arpeggios in the third, big staccato chords in the fourth, and a light skipping tinged with sadness in the fifth. The minor key eighth variation was taken poco adagio, melancholy and regretful, suffused with the solemn grandeur of a bygone baroque era. The final variation was played allegro vivace, with beautiful running fingerwork in the left hand as the theme rang out triumphantly in the right.
Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold died in January of 1833, leaving his final opera, Ludovic, unfinished; it was completed by Fromental Halévy. A comic opera with a rather implausible plot, it had no lasting success, vanishing without a trace almost immediately other than an arietta entitled “I sell scapulars,” a bitingly satiric mocking of the greed and corruption of the clergy that would have gotten Hérold jailed prior to the French Revolution of 1830. The melody appealed to Chopin who wrote a set of variations, Variations brillante sur le rondo favori de Ludovic de Hérold ‘Je vends des scapulaires’. Coming as they do after Chopin’s first Nocturnes and first set of Études, they show many elements characteristic of his later style.
In Albright’s reading, the piece played out like a shortened Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, opening with a dramatic introduction, played with a bit of bombast but charmingly so. The theme followed, sweet and innocent, almost naïve, leading to a nervously staccato variation, then a wistful legato lento one. The concluding scherzo vivace, almost a krakoviak in character, was dramatic and powerful.
The second half began with Mozart’s Nine Variations on a Theme by Duport, K.573, his last set for keyboard. The composer may have drawn his theme from a popular cello sonata of Jean-Pierre Duport, director of chamber music for the court of Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm II, the likely commissioner. Again the touch lightened, as did the use of pedal, brought into play most notably in the arpeggiated crescendos of the third variation. The fourth, with its hunting horn-like theme was played almost staccato, the fifth was delightfully playful and the ensuing minor-key variation sadly wistful, followed by a joyous one, almost leaping up the keyboard. The penultimate adagio variation was played aria-like, the right hand singing and supported by a light orchestral accompaniment in the left. The jubilant final variation led to the coda, starting softly and building, then softening to a final repeat of the theme.
Before concluding with Chopin’s Op. 2 Variations on La ci darem la mano, Albright mentioned that it ought to be performed more often. We agree. Chopin wrote several versions of it, first with orchestra, then for two pianos and finally and best, for solo piano. It began with a lush and romantic promenade introduction, almost like a nocturne, the left hand rock steady, the right hand dancing across the keyboard. Albright brought out the duet character of the theme, the two hands evoking respectively the Don and Zerlina, followed by a brief and soft orchestral interlude (it is often played dramatically ff). The first and second variations featured rapid, busy fingerwork, followed by livelier orchestral interludes. Next an arioso variation, the left hand legato while the right hand sang the melody, followed by a somber interlude. The fourth variation, marked con bravura, was breathtaking, unbelievable control and speed, what we saw seemingly impossible, yet tossed off with no apparent effort. The final variation, adagio, was operatic and dramatic, softly spooky then lush and romantic, recalling the opening. The alla polacca coda positively danced in the right hand; great cascades of notes coming interspersed with jazzy bits. Albright clearly enjoying it immensely—as did we.
For an encore, Albright improvised on a theme honoring Valentine’s Day. He referenced it to Tom and Jerry cartoons, professing not to know it as the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Yet another set of variations, ranging quickly over styles from scherzando to minor-key adagio, to grand, to music-box lightness, with a bit of polacca thrown in as well—delightful from start to finish yet not without poignant dissonances and emotional dread contesting the bright, sentimental surface.
Beethoven, Sonata in E Major /
Beethoven, 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor
Beethoven, 15 Variations
and Fugue, Eroica Variations