Pianist Charlie Albright headed first to the microphone onstage and announced that we would be having “an afternoon of fun” and “if you want to clap in the middle of the performance, I will play faster.”
The young pianist preferred variations for the first half of the program. Opening with Handel’s Chaconne in G Major, HWV 435, he was already in fast mode. And in taking this vehicle for variation on a repeated short harmonic progression, Albright immediately established a presence at the piano, one of laser sharp focus and all-outgoing temperament. He brought Romantic era thrust and delicacy, mostly the former, to this Baroque-born composition. Some soft, silky right-hand lines in the slow minor variation juxtaposed hugely robust left-hand octaves in the following fast variation.
A 17-year old Chopin composed his Variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano,” Op. 2. Who else in Shalin Liu Performance Center, Sunday afternoon, was thinking Charlie Albright might very well be the young virtuoso Chopin, and, if not, Albright would certainly not be trailing all that far behind? Plenty of restlessness, another Romantic leaning of Albright, surfaced. His edge-of-the-seat action might also be the sort of thing you enjoy? But the lyricism and rubato so characteristic of Chopin went missing in the frantic action.
Quipping about his improvisations, he told us, “you don’t have to practice them.” The packed hall was completely with him when he asked for “random notes” to form a melody, or more accurately, a motive: B-flat, C-sharp, F-sharp, another C-sharp and a G—a G, hmm, what to do with that note, he mused.
For ten or so minutes, Albright went all over the keyboard, his love of Romantic era art on full display. Choosing a dark, minor mode and dazzling handfuls of keys, he unleashed nonstop ardent passion, resting only briefly in a sunnier major mode. What happened to those four or five notes after their initial appearance? The meaning of all this? Probably it would be showmanship for the many so disposed.
Variations Op. 41 by Nikolai Kapustin capped-off the first half. The Russian composer who switched over to being a jazz pianist, shows off his stuff in an overly long mélange of devices: walking bass, swing left hand, riffing right hand. Obviously meant to impress—if not merely to be “fun”— the dizzying high speed compendium seemed a natural match for entertainer Albright.
Many never tire of the oft-played Pictures at an Exhibition of Modest Mussorgsky. But what about it as a piano solo work as it was originally written, not the moving and colorful Ravel orchestration with which we are most familiar. Albright ruminated on his gradually becoming acquainted with the piano work and the many discoveries still to be made vis-à-vis interpretation.
The opening Promenade oddly enough left the 19th-century culture of sound.for an ambulatory account which found a lilt here, a pang there. Was this Albright’s way of looking into the mind of the observer as he walks among the pictures?
The scary gnome entrance instead evoked a loud humming bird. An overly pronounced melody almost dispelled the droning rhythm of the castle. The hatching eggs seemed channeled through Comcast high-speed internet business service.
In his introduction describing some of his discoveries with Mussorgsky, Albright offered single words, “uncertainty” “uncontained,” and “mystery.” Touches of mystery in the gnomes and witches scenes altogether invited us in. Uncontained, though, seemed more the way of Albright’s painting of Mussorgsky.
The bell-like ultimate transition in the Kiev gate picture received spectacularly imaginative voicings and articulation of those “layers” of which Albright had spoken earlier.
What, in fact, one might wonder, should someone have begun clapping during the performance? How much faster could he play? No one tested this.
After his first encore, an overly sensitized or hold-your-breath rendering of a Grieg miniature, Albright went out in blazing form with “Mozart on steroids,” or “Turkish March.” How many megabytes did Albright manage to transfer, say, in 30 seconds?
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net