in: Reviews

March 28, 2016

Ardent Beethoven in ISGM’s Variations

by

Charlie Albright (file photo)

Charlie Albright (file photo)

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.

Among his professional singing experiences, Sudeep Agarwala has performed with many local choruses.

13 Comments

  1. I was in attendance at the concert Sunday and found it unbelievable. The response from the audience was tremendous and there were tears everywhere. This review unfortunately has many factual issues. Albright was the Artist in Residence at Leverett House in 2011-2012, but lives in NYC now. His concerts with the Boston Pops are not this month or next, but in May. Also, I don’t believe that is his correct age, so it should be removed. I disagree with the author’s opinion of Albright’s use of pedal, as it created a musical experience that transported all of us. It seems that this review was written by a pure musicologist concerned primarily with historical accuracy rather than musical artistry.

    The encore of a themes-and-variations improvisation on Amazing Grace was also a spectacular and appropriate ending to the Easter Sunday concert.

    Comment by John Framingham — March 28, 2016 at 6:05 pm

  2. I was in attendance at the concert Sunday and found it unbelievable. The response from the audience was tremendous and there were tears everywhere. This review unfortunately has many factual issues. Albright was the Artist in Residence at Leverett House in 2011-2012, but lives in NYC now. His concerts with the Boston Pops are not this month or next, but in May. Also, I don’t believe that is his correct age, so it should be removed. I disagree with the author’s opinion of Albright’s use of pedal, as it created a musical experience that transported all of us. It seems that this review was written by a pure musicologist concerned primarily with historical accuracy rather than musical artistry.

    The encore of a themes-and-variations improvisation on Amazing Grace was also a spectacular and appropriate ending to the Easter Sunday concert.

    Comment by John Framingham — March 28,

    at 6:05 pm | Edit This

    Just to set the historical context straight, the theme of the “Eroica” variations did not “com[e] from” the Eroica Symphony, op. 55; that symphony was its fourth and final use in Beethoven’s oeuvre. Beethoven originally titled op.

    as variations on a theme from The Creatures of Prometheus (op. 43, published after the variations but written a year earlier), though he first used it in a set of contradances written a year before that. So, four appearances in a period of three years; he really, really liked that tune.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 28, 2016 at 7:09 pm

  3. I appreciate the reviewer’s effort and his candor here, finding myself unhappily in agreement with his assessment of Charlie Albright’s prefatory remarks. We were not alone, either: all round me listeners seemed to find them more enthusiastic than enlightening. However, I have to concur with the artist that Op

    might have been better served by a bit more life experience. Not necessarily

    years, mind you – Mr. Albright is nearly there already at 27!* – but the pianist never quite found the gravitas of this sublime masterwork, which began and ended somewhat glibly.

    Nonetheless, the reviewer didn’t hear, as I did, that the pianist seemed to get the hang of the instrument and the accoustic – he recalibrated his pedalling throughout Op 109, and played with considerably more clarity thereafter. I found his C minor Variations pretty terrific: lucid, rhythmically compelling, by turns urgent and serene. One of the challenges in this set is the relentless succession of transitions, both from variation to variation and group to group – Charlie’s way with most of them was masterful. I would also quibble with the reviewer’s view as to the composer’s regard for his own work: my sense is that LvB’s issue with his ‘piece of folly’ was more commercial than artistic. In any event, I myself find this set truly precious and wish more pianists included it in their programs.

    As for the ‘Eroica Variations’, I think Vance Koven is right on both counts: the history of this theme’s uses, and the fact that LvB really, really liked that tune. (I do, too, and greatly enjoyed the BSO’s performance of the 3rd Symphony under Francis-Xavier Roth this past January.) As for Albright’s traversal, I found it plenty epic – again, his prior remarks to that effect seemed superfluous – and thought his approach was mostly successful. I agree with the reviewer that things got a bit muddled in the fugue, though, where to me the most thrilling thing is indeed the intricacy of the counterpoint. I also share Mr. Agarwala’s sense of the encore: fairly satisfying though the improvisation might have been in another context, it did sound rather callow after the dizzying designs of the

    year old Beethoven’s Op 35.

    * Charlie was

    when he competed in the Northwest Chopin Competition in February, 2005, so that would make him

    or so right now. Young though he is, I realize I’ve heard him quite a few times thus far, and look forward to many more…

    Comment by nimitta — March 29, 2016 at 11:05 am

  4. Jeez, look it up

    That said, the information is generally lacking or almost
    creepily opaque, reminding one of Johann van Beethoven

    For example the Wikipedia entry says career active since

    Comment by David Moran — March 30, 2016 at 12:50 am

  5. The year Charlie started to play the piano was 1992, David, when he was three – not the year he was born.

    That pesky internet!

    Comment by nimitta — March 30, 2016 at 10:23 am

  6. Cool – link for 1989?
    And a new def of ‘active’ !
    So maybe not like LvB’s

    Google … born and see what comes up

    Comment by David Moran — March 30, 2016 at 12:19 pm

  7. 1988, in fact: http://www.last.fm/music/Charlie+Albright/+wiki

    A man of mystery (and a darn good piano player)!

    Comment by nimitta — March 30, 2016 at 12:45 pm

  8. Right, nimitta, so pesky indeed … and where is that citation of yours from? Ah, Wikipedia. And what does the current wikip entry on him say? Nothing; the info has been removed. Please note the ‘talk’ page entry: ‘You obviously have a close connection to the subject, especially in light of the recent edit warring and sockpuppetry associated with this biography.’
    Okay, so we go to CA’s official webpage. Surely birth info there. Nothing. You download his official bio. Nothing.
    Beethoven’s father lives!?
    But yes, he was active by age 3, it says, or was it at (1992)? Yet that was at home playing ‘Twinkle.’ Yeah, me too. He was on TV at — whenever that was. Formal training starts at— wonder how old he was.

    Hence my phrase ‘creepily opaque’. What other budding star pianist warrants birther inquiry?

    Comment by david moran — March 30, 2016 at 4:05 pm

  9. he Eroica variations were brilliant, heroic, the C minor variations were exuberant and clear and full of good spirits. Opus

    sounded rather straightforward and plain; all the notes were there, as far as I could tell, even in the trills towards the end (that’s a lot of notes), but nothing much emerged out of them. This was partly due to the overpedaling mentioned in the review, but there was also a general lack of shape. Under some fingers those trills can become an endless forest, but in this case the trees seemed quite countable.

    When I first saw the program I was puzzled by the reverse chronological order, but now I think that the pianist ordered the pieces according to his mastery of them, with the weakest first and the strongest last. That is generally a good plan, but when it leads to getting a great masterpiece out of the way first and then following it with two relatively minor works, perhaps some rethinking is in order.

    But then he did say, in his introductory remarks, that the C minor variations were “one of Beethoven’s most famous compositions”, so perhaps he has a different view of the relative merits of these works than I do. The remarks don’t help. I like silence when the music is over, and before it begins, as well.

    Comment by SamW — March 30, 2016 at 8:26 pm

  10. The only thing more annoying than cell phones is performer’s commentary. If I want a lecture, no matter how brief, I’ll go to a lecture. Play the music. That’s what I paid for.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 31, 2016 at 10:41 am

  11. I share Alan Levitan’s opinion, but I’ve been told by performers that their agents and promoters tell them that contemporary audiences love this stuff — makes the artist seem “more human.”

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 31, 2016 at 5:06 pm

  12. I don’t need them to be human, I’ve got myself for that. I would prefer that they be divine, if possible, and suitably mute.

    Comment by SamW — March 31, 2016 at 5:33 pm

  13. I always learned something important to the upcoming listening experience when Charles Rosen spoke before playing, but those sorts of analytic chops are extremely rare, yes, and Albright (and even, say, Denk) are not at that level in any sense.

    Some agents discourage commentary, not the opposite.

    Divinity and muteness might explain the absence of longform birth certification.

    Comment by david moran — April 1, 2016 at 11:49 am

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