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.