logo_black_colorstatueby Rorianne Schrade for New York Concert Review; New York, NY

Charlie Albright is a pianist whose name music-lovers will be hearing more and more. Winner of a slew of awards, most prominently a 2014 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Mr. Albright is now in the company of classical musicians who have become household names (given a classically oriented household anyway) – Ursula Oppens, Richard Stoltzman, Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn, Yuja Wang, and many others who have made their marks. Mr. Albright will undoubtedly lend his own additional distinction to this already illustrious group.

As there are no applications for the Avery Fisher Career Grant (only recommendation by a board), the awardees must naturally have sufficient careers to be noticed so some view the award as more of an honorary plum than an early boost. For the early boost, big kudos are due to the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation’s New York International Piano Competition (NYIPC), which awarded their First Prize in 2006 to the then seventeen-year-old Mr. Albright; they are a rare competition that follows up on their laureates, and eight years later they presented him in this concert, an evening not to be forgotten.

Charlie Albright headshotThe program was, as Mr. Albright described from the stage, made of “familiar and less familiar” works. The more familiar included Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, Quasi una fantasia (the “Moonlight”), though, as the pianist noted in his informal comments from the stage, it is so famous that it has become almost “infamous” and is relatively underperformed today. It was good to hear this work in its entirety, live, and not massacred by a teenager as it so often is. Mr. Albright took a sprawling, leisurely tempo for the first movement, a challenge to sustain, but he held the audience’s unwavering attention. I was initially concerned about the casual feel of this rather trendy venue (with a bar adjoining and listeners quickly finishing drinks before start time), but I was quickly reassured. Blue lighting set a peaceful atmosphere for the capacity audience of avid listeners, and one could hear the proverbial pin drop. I began to see “what the fuss is all about” with this venue. Classical concert life is evolving in interesting directions, and the attempts to modernize it are interestingly bringing it back to the warm intimacy one associates with nineteenth century salons. What was old is new again. Beethoven, for one, felt new, because as casual as Mr. Albright was in his stage style and commentary, he was equally intense in his high-powered performances. The finale of this 1801 work took on the fire of the master’s Op. 57 or 111. It was brilliant, precise, and powerful.

Janácek’s Piano Sonata 1.X.1905 (“From the Street”) may have been meant to be among the “less familiar” but has been programmed increasingly in the last decade or so, so I’ve heard it no fewer than six times live in the past few years; it is always, however, a revelation. Mr. Albright chose to take dynamic markings to extremes more than I’ve heard in the first movement (especially left hand phrases, even though marked in the score as strong). The exaggeration was striking, although not always completely convincing to me.

The despair inherent in the Janácek was dispelled by Chopin’s well-known Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22. Mr. Albright projected the opening phrases with limpid delicacy and took the ensuing Polonaise by storm. It was a joyous romp, untroubled by petty concerns, free and full of whimsy and yet cohesive, which it often is not. The way Chopin dovetails delicate cadences with bursts of virtuoso energy is enough to cause a good musician the emotional equivalent of whiplash, but Mr. Albright steered things gracefully always, appearing to have fun all the way. In fact, throughout the entire evening, he displayed a joy in playing that was utterly infectious. He disarms jaded concertgoers with an openness and humility that for some reason we are not prepared to expect of one who earned simultaneous degrees in Economics (Harvard), and Pre-Med (Harvard), while studying for a Master of Music degree the following year (New England Conservatory). Clearly not wanting for “gray matter” Mr. Albright brings a vibrant spirit and limitless range to his performances. He possesses the kind of intellect that doesn’t stop growing and will no doubt continue to surprise as his career progresses. I’ll be looking forward to following him.

The second half consisted of the twelve Chopin Etudes, Op. 25, continuing to exploit this pianist’s nearly effortless technique while reflecting sensitivity and imagination. Mr. Albright offered a thumbnail description of each Etude (a nice touch along with the fine program notes), adding a healthy dose of humor. He peppered his comments on the first one (“Aeolian Harp”) with references to “that thingy” the harpist does and drew appreciative laughter, but then played it with sincerity and mastery. He described Chopin’s F Major Etude as resembling galloping horses (though adding, “not quite ‘Gangnam Style’”) and his playing followed through with tremendous spirit and interesting voicing surprises. The A Minor Etude, Op. 25, No. 4 he likened to “target practice” – and anyone who has played it would have to agree – but Mr. Albright is an able marksman and fared well. The E minor (which he likened to a “drunk guy” in the opening section) included some of his most inspired playing, replete with playful pauses, creative accentuations, and interesting voicing (if some vanishing right hand passagework in its central section). The B minor Etude in octaves (No. 10) was too fast and rough for my liking but it was certainly effective in building blizzard-like effects, and the central B Major section was ethereal. The Etude No. 11 (“Winter Wind”), was, as they say, “as good as it gets” – and so was No. 12 (“The Ocean”), which started more softly than one usually hears, a good decision (despite markings) when pacing so many Etudes in a row.

A highlight of the evening was the first encore, Mr. Albright’s own improvisation on notes provided by the audience – in this case, B-flat, C, E-flat and A. He looked unfazed by the first three suggested notes, but the fourth offering was apparently bad news, prompting a grimace and an “oh, boy … we’ll talk after the concert.” The improvisation was nonetheless spectacular, and the spontaneity, even with stylistic similarity to Chopin and Rachmaninoff, kept one on the edge of one’s seat. If the music world is worried about the widening chasm between audience and performer, Mr. Albright is just the answer, especially with this improvisatory element. While I can’t say I agreed with every interpretation by this pianist, especially the occasional roughness that sometimes comes with “going for broke,” the improvisation alone was worth the trip, and the program offered much to love.

A second encore, the Mozart-Volodos Rondo alla Turca (with some Albright additions?) was perhaps a bit “too much of a good thing” but one must allow a mid-twenties artist his exuberance. It seemed that a broken string was adding to the clangor, the Steinway’s own contribution to the Turkish Janissary band. Bravo – and encore!