Charlie Albright’s local roots and rising fame make him a natural choice for Isabella Stewart Garnder’s “Variations” concert series. Born and raised in Centralia, Washington, Albright came to Harvard as the first student of classical piano the university’s joint Masters program with the New England Conservatory. He then went on to complete an Artists’ Diploma at Julliard while continuing to fill out his international touring schedule. The 27-year-old pianist’s 2015-16 schedule includes performances at the Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and multiple solo performances throughout the United States. Locally, in addition to his performances at ISGM, Albright will be performing later this month with the Boston Pops. He was also artist in residence at Harvard’s Leverett House, a position last held by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Sunday afternoon’s concert in ISGM’s Calderwood Hall was the second installment in a three-part series curated by Scott Nickrenz, entitled “Variations.” Whereas the first installment (reviewed by Leon Golub here) offered a set of French-themed variations by Mozart and Chopin, this all-Beethoven outing featured the Op. 109 E Major Sonata No. 30, 32 Variations in C Minor on an Original Theme (WoO 80), and the Op. 35 Eroica Variations in reverse chronological order.
Written in Beethoven’s late period, the compact Op. 109 develops a mature emotional narrative that seems to end before it begins—a lilting opening reminisce transitions to tragic downfall in the first movement and back again in under five minutes. A second movement expounds a vehement Prestissimo that races to its conclusion in roughly the same amount of time. The meat of the sonata is in the concluding variation set: six sprawling variations that explore the full harmonic possibilities of a theme developed from the opening movement.
Before beginning the piece, Albright palavered about how he envisioned an aged Beethoven at his piano writing the Op 109 sonata, fondly reminiscing on the joys and follies of his life; he begged the audience to pay more attention to the atmosphere than the notes. It’s doubtful that imagery reflected any reality in Beethoven’s biography. I found this and other facile commentary throughout the afternoon needlessly distancing and patronizing.
Albright emotes expressively and beautifully, albeit sometimes through a haze: the opening movement was mired in rubato and an overly aggressive pedal that buried a pristine dynamic control; frequently the inner harmonies were buried under the morass of suspended sound—an issue that was somewhat relieved in a more aggressive second movement that features some bold lines, but the malaise of sound again plagued the final movement. The concluding variation, which, under the best of circumstances can be difficult to parse, particularly frustrated in a read that seemingly focused on Beethoven’s psychological state over his clear structure.
The 32 Variations in C Minor followed. These are not as comprehensive as either the Op 109 sonata nor the Eroica Variations. The slender set seamlessly progresses through the constitutive pieces attacca in groups of three or four—in this case, over less than 15 minutes. Beethoven famously held these in low esteem, refusing to consider it part of his official opus and at one point he referreredto them as his “piece of folly”. Despite its diminutive structure, the work bears the gravitas of c minor, a key Beethoven associated with a sense of impending fate. Albright valorized dramatic technical pyrotechnics, but his extended use of the damper pedal again obscured the details. In Albright’s bold musical palette, though, these miniature variations were broadly colored with a deep sense of apprehension.
Coming from the fourth movement of the third symphony, the theme of the Op. 35 Eroica Variations forms the basis of this set of 15. Albright explained that he viewed the work as an epic hero’s journey. Albright performed Eroica with little pause and an orchestral sensibility, albeit faltering occasionally in the face of the demands. The culminating fugue thrilled, although as before, with the intricacies of the counterpoint left muddled.
In opening musings, the pianist noted that Sunday afternoon’s program shouldn’t be played by anyone under the age of 87. This meant in practice, that he sacrificed subtlety for waves of sound imbued with a youthful fervor. It is unclear how he will develop. Certainly he will eventually realize that Beethoven can exist on the miniature as well as the grand, and that can find the master’s wit and sophistication in addition to unrelenting surges of earnest emotion. Sunday’s concert was a solid starting point: audiences will certainly find much to enjoy over the next 60 years of Albright’s unfolding career.
After an appreciative standing ovation from a packed Calderwood Hall, Albright improvised variations on “Amazing Grace.” In any other context the exercise would have provided satisfying closure, but next to Beethoven’s, these variations sounded callow.
The third and final installment of ISGM’s “Variations” series will be performed in October 2016.