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Albright Undisputed Master of Variations


Charlie Albright (file photo)
Charlie Albright (file photo)

Many pianists possess great technique; many retain a broad repertoire. Charlie Albright has something extra: the propensity to make concerts riveting, fun and exhilarating. His unique way of communing with the music merges his intentions with the composer’s, bringing freshness of vision and unique expressive ability to his performances.

In the third of three programs named “Variations” Albright returned to the Gardner for the capstone of Brahms’s piano variations, his Handel Variations, before offering variations by Handel himself, and ending with a set of jazz-infused variations by contemporary Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin. (Our review of the first in this series last February may be found here.)

Brahms cryptically dedicated his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, to Clara Schumann as “a beloved friend”. The theme from the third movement of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite HWV 434 inspires 25 variations and a Bach-like fugue.  Albright began with a stately, graceful and tender statement of the theme, continuing at a moderate pace, the fist variation firm and lively, the second mysterious, the third having a processional air. A resolute, quick and dynamic variation led to a lyrical cantabile fifth and a mysterious legato sixth; the next two rounded out a grouping of the first eight with rapid staccato playing, lightly pedaled, ending in a fermata.

The ninth variation felt grand, slow and regal, the repeat came softly; the ensuing Allegro energico started slowly then built in speed and loudness, the next two sweet, melodic and delicate. Serving as apex in the middle of the sequence, the “Hungarian funeral march” had solemn and funeral left-hand arpeggios under a mournful right-hand, leading to a Czardas-like riotous whirlwind in the next. From there to the delightful “music-box” we heard successively forte bravura, light and quick, a lilting piu mosso paired with smooth, lyrical and graceful, a Couperin-inspired siciliana, thick chromatic textures, then flowing and rippling versions. Variations 23-25 constituted a continuous accelerando and crescendo, the last one celebratory; a short pause led to the joyful and vibrant fugue, developing in a repeated punctuating exclamation point before ending with a wonderful release.

The Handel Chaconne in G Major, HWV 435, consists of a short dignified and stately theme followed by 21 equally short variations, grouped in A-B-A form, with 1-8 in G major, 9-16 in G minor, the final five back in major. Albright played it as a fellow musician-composer, in intimate communion with the essentials of the music. Interestingly, he chose not to play the repeats in variations 9-14. This helped to maintain the balance between the sections, since the minor-key parts were generally slower. Again at the end, variations 19-21 were played without the repeats, in this case to build momentum for the ending of the piece.

Nikolai Kapustin (b. 1937) trained as a classical pianist at the Moscow Conservatory, hiding his liking of jazz until graduating in 1961, whereupon he joined the Oleg Lundstrem Jazz Orchestra. Concerning his own compositions, he cautions us that “for me the classical part is more important. The jazz style is there to give color.” The Variations, Op. 41 (1984), uses the classical theme and variations form, moving through a dazzling variety of mainstream jazz influence—including boogie woogie bass, walking tenths and bouncing ragtime left hand and sounding like a mournful Errol Garner. Indeed, if one listens to his music as jazz, it can sometimes seem disappointing and unsubtle, even while the playing seems, as Kapustin noted, to require “two right hands”. Two right hands are just what Albright has, and in his hands the jazziness was not only emphasized, but was perfectly executed in the best rendition of this work that you are likely to hear. At times he seemed to be channeling Art Tatum, the difficult rhythms seeming effortless and natural, the variations the essence of jazz. The slow fifth variation was nostalgic and pensive, the last an ode to the balletic beauty of big city life.

Enthusiastically acclaimed, Albright encored with an improvisatory set of variations based on four notes supplied by members of the audience.  The first variation had a Debussy-like sensitivity to ambient color, the next one more dramatic and stormy, shrouded in darkness. Each new variation disclosed a distinctive quality, ranging from urgent to lyrical, solemn to adventurous, shifting from waltz to march to ballade and more—all while maintaining the overall coherence of the idiom. A vast momentum gathered before coming to a convincing cadence.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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