in: Reviews

September 17, 2017

Albright and Chopin at the Gardner

by

Charlie Albright (file photo)

In the first of his three concerts at ISGM this season, Charlie Albright brought an inspired approach to the Chopin Andante Spianato, the Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22, and to the Op. 25 Etudes, holding nothing back in a masterful display of musicality. His extraordinary technique always foregrounded both expressiveness and structure.

Chopin’s Op. 22 spans the transition from Chopin’s bravura style, urged upon him by his teachers in Warsaw, to the intimate pianistic style that marks the remainder of his career. The Grande Polonaise Brillante was composed for piano and orchestra in 1830-31. In 1834, Chopin composed an oneiric nocturne-like Andante for piano solo, labelled spianato to emphasize smooth, dreamy tranquility, and used it to introduce the Grande Polonaise Brillante, joining the two with a fanfare. In 1838, Chopin published a piano solo version of the entire work.

Albright explained that the piano solo version of the Grande polonaise, without the orchestra of the original version, allowed the pianist to take a few liberties. He also noted that he interpreted the Grand polonaise to be narrating the coming-of-age of a princely youth who handles unexpected challenges with a combination of flamboyance, grit, and ineptitude.

Albright began gently, at a moderate pace, emphasizing the soft and delicate unfolding of the melodic line. Rather than transpiring matter-of-factly, as it so often is, the chordal trio section came as a slightly anguished questioning, tinged with regret – “Fled is that music. Do I wake or dream?” The brisk, up-tempo fanfare ushered in a tumultuous and somewhat hostile world faced with bravura and daring, the main weapons available to youth. Albright used dynamics, tempo, phrasing and rubato to convey the Sturm und Drang of a quarrelsome hero who finds a footing in a whirlwind of threats and shifting landscapes, often by relying on deeply-ingrained folkloric rhythms. He convinced us with a bold yet leavened reading, sparkling with bits of self-doubt and insecurity.

The Op. 25 Etudes represent something of a manifesto for Chopin, exhibiting not only techniques for producing particular effects with the piano, but also showing that the solo piano can be as emotionally expressive as the operas that the young Chopin had been urged write in order to make his mark as a composer. Albright described his own mental fantasies for some of the etudes and noted that playing them all together calls attention to the dramatic structure.

Characteristic of Albright’s approach was an arch-like shaping of long phrases, entering softly gently, building toward a peak, before returning altered from the traversal. He took Etude No. 1 (Æolian Harp) molto espressivo, with breath-taking intimacy, as though wooing an absent beloved, Albright’s face almost touching the keyboard. Of Etude No.2, Albright told us that it felt to him like a thread being woven into a rich tapestry, and he sounded both silky and slightly tragic—somehow evocative of fate. In Etude No. 3, Albright heard “a galloping horse” and gave us was a young colt intoxicated with a freedom that will end all too soon.  Albright’s striking rendering of Etude No. 4 in A Minor turned the staccato into a sort of hymn to life’s ruptures and discontinuities. At an exceptionally brisk pace, the right-hand melody nevertheless came through clearly. For No. 5 in E Minor, Albright imagined “a drunk staggering out of a bar… then the sky opens up, and he sees the stars before staggering along some more.”  We heard in it the symbolic beauty of a Tolstoy or a Bashevis Singer tale, or a Rumi poem. The study in thirds, No. 6 in G-sharp Minor, painted a gorgeous impressionist canvas with shimmering pastels and flashes of light.

Inasmuch as Etude No. 7, usually nick-named “The cello,” seemed as Albright explained, more like a cello and violin duet, his hands evoked a pleading, tormented, manly voice (the cello) answered by a lyrical, comforting, feminine voice (the violin). No. 8, the D-flat Major study in sixths, crested a tidal wave of ineffable and unstoppable emotion. No. 9, the “Butterfly,” proved simultaneously jovial and self-deprecating, and the B minor octave study constituted a sublime and unbridled threat of cosmic forces; the middle section tender and delicate, transformed the return of the octaves into a celebration.

In introducing Op. 25, Albright joked that, having been raised in the Northwest, he had never understood Etude 11 in A Minor (“Winter wind”) but after five years in Boston, he “got it.” He metaphysically evoked the lone soul alone in the cold, threatened by icy storms, forced to endure the solitude and the world’s indifference, even a journey into the Underworld.  The Etude in C Minor received a Byronic grandeur and subjectivity; its sublime cosmic scale engulfed worlds and difficulties into seamless and fractious beauty.

Although totally spent after the Chopin, Albright gave us a taste of the next Gardner concert with a brief improvisation, a moody, flowing late-Romantic piece evocative of Rachmaninoff but expressive of a distinctly modern and utterly authentic content. Whether he recognized it or not, Albright expressed the torment and vulnerability of the aspiring human heart: If I give my whole being, will it be enough? No doubt there were a few very minor rough spots today, but so much the better. That’s what happens when you give it your all.

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

5 Comments

  1. “Fled is that music. Do I wake or sleep?”

    It’s easy to confuse sleeping and dreaming with all those nightingales flying around, but Mr. Keats was a pretty careful poet. For a Romantic, anyway.

    Comment by SamWa — September 18, 2017 at 9:32 am

  2. “as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
    decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
    to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

    Comment by Leon Golub — September 18, 2017 at 10:43 am

  3. Bravo, Leon..Billy…Sam…John!

    It is hard to add much to a review as perceptive as this, but a few impressions linger from Charlie Albright’s monumental performance yesterday at the Gardner:

    • even to ears saturated with innumerable live and recorded performances over the years, each étude seemed to tell a fresh, compelling story. Albright’s conceptions were distinctive and had real narrative power.

    • although a marvelous way to begin a recital, I don’t remember ever hearing a pianist lead with the Andante Spianato. Its hypnotically dreamy atmosphere is extremely difficult to capture when walking out cold, especially after pausing to give a talk. In this case, some dozen measures went by before the piece seemed to come together for me.

    • as Leon Golub pointed out, Albright’s is an extraordinary technique, which I sense expanding dramatically with each Boston appearance but rarely upstaging the musical narrative now. Every ‘problem’ Chopin posed for the pianist was not only ‘solved’ but subsumed into the storyline, with only a few agogic pauses here and there for Albright’s fingers to catch their breath and re-position. This alchemy – transforming the heavy technical demands into pure music – is the real challenge of the Études, of course – more so, I’d say, than the bravura Grande Polonaise Brillante.

    • like his contemporary Daniil Trifonov, Albright left it all onstage yesterday. Playing Opus 25 live is an incredible feat that even some of the most iconic pianists of yore wouldn’t attempt despite the work’s towering stature in the repertoire, as well as the poetic architecture of the set as a whole, which Albright mentioned and then realized. His engagement with these pieces was phenomenal from start to finish – as the reviewer, concluded, Albright gave it his all.

    Comment by nimitta — September 18, 2017 at 11:54 am

  4. Dear Professor Golub, I loved your review of the Charlie Albright concert at the Gardner, September 17th. I was so happy that you mentioned the beginning pieces which I found so soothing and beautiful. Did you notice that at the end of one of the etudes, Mr. Albright placed his left hand on the keyboard, and then leaned his body towards that side of the piano..as if sad ? in mourning? tranquil?
    I was wondering if you played a musical instrument and , if so, which one ?
    I attend the Handel and Haydn Society concerts and often go to their working rehearsals, and I wonder if you go there as well ?

    On another note, my husband and I are good friends of the Grindlays..small world that it is.

    Thank you again for your review.. I am savouring it.

    Sincerely,
    Susan Barsky

    Comment by susan barsky — September 25, 2017 at 9:11 pm

  5. Albright’s body language is indeed expressive, though it doesn’t seem to distract from the music; there are indeed some performers who overdo it and do distract. At the other extreme were Michelangeli, who was ramrod stiff, and the older Richter who wanted lighting only on the keys to avoid the distraction of his presence behind them; both were of course exceptional artists. A nice book that discusses piano performance styles of all sorts is Stuart Isacoff’s “A Natural History of the Piano.”

    Comment by Leon Golub — September 26, 2017 at 2:54 pm

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