It’s hard not to like Charlie Albright, the gifted young pianist who’s been racking up coast-to-coast awards over the past few years. At 24, he emanates a kind of appealing nerd chic, with his baby face and anime hair, glasses sliding constantly down his nose, coltish stage presence and degree in economics from Harvard. Little wonder that when he stepped onstage at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, a wave of maternal cooing swept through the crowd.
But as he launched into a program of Beethoven and Chopin, Albright’s raw power at the keyboard quickly became clear. He dispatched Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-Flat, Op. 110, with a kind of rough, even brutal directness, refreshing in its clarity but not always particularly nuanced. He seemed to be shooting for excitement rather than depth; a fast-paced, “the-heck-with-subtlety” approach that goosed up the drama in the second and final movements but left the love-drenched opening arid and pale.
Albright’s keyboard skills are spectacular, and he takes obvious pleasure in unleashing them. But by the end, you felt as if you’d spent 20 minutes wading in turbulent shallows and had only gotten wet to the knees.
The 12 finger-snarling etudes of Chopin’s Op. 25 fared about the same: exhilarating keyboard work and a wonderful sense of vitality, structure and purpose, but painted in bright colors rather than complex hues, with every contrast underscored and underscored again. The effect was to turn many of these elusive, mysterious little pieces into entertainment — to shine so much daylight into their depths that their magic evaporated and was gone. And what is Chopin without magic?
Albright closed with an encore that might have been written for him: Arcadi Volodos’s wild transcription of the “Alla Turca” movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11. It’s a supersonic, delirious ride around the keyboard, and Albright tossed it off with casual, near-perfect ease.
Brookes is a freelance writer.