Piano Recital: Claire Huangci
Bach / Brahms / Chopin / Schumann

Rathauslaube, Schaffhausen, 2019-12-08

4-star rating

2019-12-17 — Original posting

Claire Huangci (© Mateusz Zahora)
Claire Huangci (© Mateusz Zahora)
Claire Huangci in Schaffhausen: mehr als eine Hauptprobe für die Elbphilharmonie — Zusammenfassung

Im Alter von 29 Jahren ist die Amerikanerin Claire Huangci trotz ihrer zierlichen Statur ein virtuoses Energiebündel sondergleichen. Sie nutzte den Karriereschub, den ihr der Gewinn des Géza Anda-Wettbewerbs 2018 verschafft hat, zu einer Ausweitung ihres Repertoires. Nach einer eher romantischen Präsentation von Bachs Französischer Ouverture brillierte sie in Brahms16 Walzern op.39 schob danach den selten gespielten Boléro op.19 von Frédéric Chopin ein. Über einen kurzen, jedoch sehr gelungenen Exkurs zu Schumanns Papillons, op.2 kehrte die Pianistin schließlich zu Brahms zurück, mit den ersten fünf von dessen Ungarischen Tänzen. Hier gefielen speziell die populären Nummern 4 (f-moll) und 5 (fis-moll) ausgezeichnet.

Als Zugaben wählte Claire Huangci die erste und letzte der 6 Humoresken, op.14 von Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Im einstmals allzu bekannten Menuet célèbre täuscht der eher simple Mozart-Abklatsch des Themas: das Stück steigert sich zu kurzen, brillanten und sehr virtuosen Höhepunkten. Die “moderne” Cracovienne fantastique (Krakowiak = Tanz aus Krakau) mag als Komposition eher an Salonmusik erinnern. Stark rhythmisch, von Synkopen geprägt, scheint diese Musik gelegentlich von Jazz inspiriert—ist jedoch bereits 1887 entstanden!

Table of Contents


About the Concert

The Rathaus (City Hall) Schaffhausen is a historic building from 1412, in which both the city council, as well as the county (Kanton) parliament are still holding their sessions today. In cooperation with the Musik-Collegium Schaffhausen, the City of Schaffhausen is offering “Cultural Encounters” (public lectures, concerts, etc.) in the Rathauslaube, the venerable convention hall in the first floor of the Rathaus:

Concerts in the Rathauslaube use a podium in the center of the long inner wall of the rectangular hall. This has the big advantage of small distances between artist and audience, and also of excellent sound coverage. All around the hall, there is a row of seats along the walls, slightly elevated (some 10 – 15 cm) against the floor. The hall is not only very atmospheric with the old paintings and the wooden ceiling, but it also offers excellent acoustics.

The second one of this season’s cultural encounters in the Rathauslaube was a recital with the American pianist Claire Huangci, see below.

Setting, etc.

The entry to this event (Sunday, 10:45 a.m.) was free (donations), the audience fairly big. I arrived early, so I could grab a wall seat with good view onto the pianist (and a chance to take photos), opposite the podium.

The Artist: Claire Huangci

This was my seventh concert encounter with the American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia). See my posting about her last recital in Lucerne on 2019-11-20 for details on the artist, as well as references to all previous concerts.


The program for this concert actually was a “test run” for an identical recital that Claire Huangci was going to give on the following day (2019-12-09) at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg:

Chopin’s Boléro was initially not listed for Schaffhausen—the artist announced it in her comments.

Concert & Review

Bach: Partita in B minor, BWV 831 (“French Overture”)

The Partita in B minor, BWV 831 (“French Overture”) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) dates from 1735. The movements are

  1. Ouverture
  2. Courante
  3. Gavotte I-II
  4. Passepied I-II
  5. Sarabande
  6. Bourrée I-II
  7. Gigue
  8. Echo

For details on the composition and earlier recital performances, I’m referring to reviews from concerts on 2017-03-05 and on 2018-02-02, as well as on a posting in which I compared a few recordings of this work.

The Performance

It’s always refreshing to watch Claire Huangci enter the hall, to see her walk onto the podium in quick, determined steps. She gave a short introduction to the “French Overture”, mentioning that she had been working with Bach’s works for the past 5 years. Her German language was clear, with a distinct American accent, but well-understandable. The artist sat down at the instrument, reflected for a short moment, waiting for the audience to calm down, then started playing.

For me, it was the first time to hear her perform a work by Bach, and I was curious to see how she would approach this composer on the Steinway D-274.

I. Ouverture

My first impressions from the introductory, richly ornamented segment: mellow articulation, an instrument with a relatively mellow sound. Also the first demisemiquaver ornaments were surprisingly mellow, flowing. This changed with subsequent instances, when the pianist (correctly) over-punctuated. She made the demisemiquaver ornaments fit into the semiquavers in the punctuated second voice. And, of course, her mordents and trills were fast—as fast as the piano mechanics permitted.

I also noted highly differentiated dynamics—far from the simple, 1- or 2-level dynamics that one would get from a harpsichord. Clearly, Claire Huangci did not try imitating the dynamics of an instrument from Bach’s time. Sure, the instrument was not a harpsichord here—and Claire Huangci is not the artist to deliver an austere, strictly historic performance. The one thing I regretted, though, was that she did not repeat the initial alla breve part. Consequently, also the second part appeared without repeat. This is a long movement, so these omissions were probably necessary to make the program fit into a reasonable overall duration. To the artist’s benefit I should say that the repeats in all other movements were observed.


The fugated section is in 6/8 time. Claire Huangci’s playing was fluent, with clear articulation, marked staccato articulation in the head of the theme. Expectedly, the artist again applied highly differentiated dynamics: the goal was not a “harpsichord imitation”, but utmost structural clarity and transparency, highlighting the theme against the accompanying voices. She did observe Bach’s piano annotation, but still took the liberty to expand into mf and beyond, in order to form harmonious phrasing arches. Conversely, there were also soft passages in forte segments.

II. Courante

In agreement with the Courante character, Claire Huangci selected a fluent pace—but maintained the discreet rhythmic swaying / agogics, as appropriate for a baroque dance movement. Not surprisingly, she offered a very “pianistic” interpretation also here, with poignant highlighting of theme heads or the beginning of a new phrase, such as the bass quavers in bar 18. The interpretation may have been far from a “historic” one—but it had the advantage of high plasticity, of extra “inner life”.

III. Gavotte I-II

The Gavottes (as well as the subsequent movements) followed attacca. The dynamics were “less romantic” in the first Gavotte. I liked the playful execution of the ornaments—and the extra embellishments in the repeats. Needless to say that the performance was technically very clean, the articulation always clear.

The second Gavotte formed a stark contrast: the annotation is piano—and Claire Huangci indeed played this all sotto voce, very mellow, gentle in articulation and touch (una corda, I suspect). It felt like murmuring, with rolling ornaments. It occurred to me that one big difference between this performance and one on the harpsichord is/was that the latter makes ornamented notes (trills, mordents) stand out in a melody, whereas in this “pianistic” approach, they are essentially integrated into the melodic flow.

The da capo instance of the first Gavotte was even richer in ornamentation (and the ornaments seemed different as well), occasionally filling parts of a melody “up to the rim”.

IV. Passepied I-II

The first Passepied was (unusually?) fast—as fast as the piano mechanics permitted in the ornaments. However, with Claire Huangci’s exceptional agility, the music remained transparent and clear at all times, the pace always under full control (without appearing too metric or rigid, of course). Surely an interpretation for the piano, presumably with limited—if any—consideration of articulation specific to a plucked instrument, such as the harpsichord.

Also here, the companion movement (Passepied II) formed a strong contrast: slower, serene, mellow, soft / sotto voce, gentle.

V. Sarabande

Gentle, soft, mellow, flowing, but reflective, with careful (not extravagant) dynamics. Excellent balance between the voices, with subtle highlighting of key phrases / motifs, also in secondary voices.

I noted that Claire Huangci did not try highlighting (or hiding) the two dissonances (in bars 24 and 25): these appeared rather inconspicuous, whereas on a harpsichord they are usually rather poignant, unless softened through arpeggio articulation.

VI. Bourrée I-II

Fast compared to a typical harpsichord performance, very clear in the articulation, transparent. Not surprisingly, very lively and highly pianistic in the dynamics, with poignant highlighting of theme heads and key notes.

The second Bourrée is again marked piano (Bach implied a harpsichord with two keyboards). Similar to the preceding “companion movements”, the artist took this all sotto voce, almost ghastly rolling by, murmuring, flowing. Along with the Sarabande, I found this one of the best movements in the performance of this Partita.

VII. Gigue

Also this: very “pianistic” in the (fast) tempo and the “integrated” ornaments, and of course additional “features” in the repeats. The ornaments were all fitting very well in style, choice / placement and execution. Just: at Claire Huangci’s fast tempo, the “richer” ones (demisemiquaver quadruplets) were maybe sounding a bit too “slurred”? OK: that’s piano, not harpsichord, once again…

VIII. Echo

The title Echo for the final movement does not indicate “echoing” of the Gigue, but refers to the echo effects through frequent switching between keyboards (coupled vs. single stop) on the harpsichord. On the piano, this dynamic “stepping” appeared attenuated, gentle / smoothed out, less abrupt. The echoes were certainly recognizable, though rather integrated into a harmonious flow.

Overall: a conclusive, coherent interpretation, excellent in articulation, clarity and transparency. Despite a very restricted use of the sustain pedal (judging from what I heard—I could not see the pedals from my seat), I would call this a relatively romantic / romanticizing interpretation in the dynamics. And even though it may not comply with the vision of a “HIP fanatic”, I can’t deny that Claire Huangci’s performance is technically impeccable, her interpretation highly interesting!

Rating: ★★★½

Claire Huangci @ Rathauslaube, Schaffhausen, 2019-12-08 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Claire Huangci @ Rathauslaube, Schaffhausen, 2019-12-08 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Brahms: 16 Waltzes, op.39

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) composed the 16 Waltzes, op.39 in 1865 and published them the following year. They are dedicated to the famous music critic Eduard Hanslick (1825 – 1904). The original Waltzes are for two pianos. 1867, Brahms also created a version for solo piano. In addition, Brahms complemented this with a simplified piano version (“easy solo version” in the list below, not performed here). The waltzes are in the following keys:

  1. B major: Tempo giusto
  2. E major
  3. G♯ minor
  4. E minor: Poco sostenuto
  5. E major: Grazioso
  6. C♯ major: Vivace (C major in the easy solo version)
  7. C♯ minor: Poco più Andante
  8. B♭ major
  9. D minor
  10. G major
  11. B minor
  12. E major
  13. B major (C major in the easy solo version and in the original for 2 pianos)
  14. G♯ minor (A minor in the easy solo version)
  15. A♭ major (A major in the easy solo version)
  16. C♯ minor (D minor in the easy solo version and in the original for 2 pianos)

The Performance

Without implying that her Bach performance was superficial or not careful enough in any way, I would still claim that Claire Huangci feels much more “at home” in the romantic and late romantic repertoire. As the waltzes are all short, I’m not commenting them one by one, and not each and every one.

Waltzes 1 – 6

No.1: Full of momentum, almost exuberant in the waltz swaying, with distinct agogic / rubato “compression” in the two hemiolic segments in the second half—enthralling, excellent!

No.2: Lyrical, singing, serene, but also thoughtful, if not dreamy, but also playful…

No.4: One of the technically more challenging waltzes, and definitely more dramatic than the preceding ones—yet, with excellent “waltz feeling”!

No.5: Not only truly grazioso, but also very atmospheric—simply beautiful!

No.6: Intricate, a pianistic masterpiece with complex rhythmic interplay between the two hands—yet playful, jolly, stunning, fun!

Waltzes 7 – 16

No.7: After a short pause, this more earnest waltz felt like the beginning of a new section: it forms a stark contrast to the jolly predecessor piece. In its context, this felt unusually intense, urging—and consequently, Claire Huangci left out the second repeat.

No.8: A fast, “jumping” dance: the omission of the second beat in the left hand reinforces the waltz feeling, seems to reinforce the agogic swaying / imbalance!

No.9: Not just espressivo, but pensive, melancholic—with distinct rubato.

No.10: Here, agogics and rubato were strong again: brilliant, a little gem!

No.11: Almost “Hungarian”!

No.12: Pastoral moments, where Brahms creates a “drone feeling” with broken octaves at the bottom end of the keyboard: beautiful sonority!

No.13: Grandiose, with its wide-spanning, big gestures—powerful, technically excellent!

No.14: Highly virtuosic, and so typical of Brahms in the piano textures—it’s amazing how well, and with how much power Claire Huangci managed this, despite her relatively small hands!

No.15: Clearly the most famous of these waltzes—the one that has made a career just by itself. In her interpretation, Claire Huangci avoided an excess in romanticism—and yet, the music felt warm, almost cosy, singing and expressive (and this wasn’t the “easy” A major version!).

No.16: The last waltz closed the series in a more pensive, restrained, melancholic, if not slightly sad mood.

Rating: ★★★★½

In her coherent, technically excellent interpretation, Claire Huangci formed two compelling dramatic arches (1 – 7 and 8 – 16) across the series.

Chopin: Boléro in C major / A minor, op.19

Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849) wrote his Boléro in C major / A minor, op.19 in 1834. It is one of Chopin’s lesser known work. The composer did not specify a key. The piece begins in C major, the central Boléro part is in A minor, but the composition touches other keys as well, ending in A major. Only later, people started referring to the piece as “Boléro in C major / A minor”. The annotations are

Introduzione: Molto allegro — Più lento (con anima) — Allegro vivace — Risoluto

The Performance

Schumann’s Papillons might feel like a logical continuation after the more intimate last waltzes that closed Brahms’ cycle. However, Claire Huangci announced Chopin’s rarely performed Boléro (she also performed this piece on the following day in Hamburg, in the same sequence, though with an intermission after the Brahms Waltzes).

The “big”, sonorous opening the Introduzione rather seemed to refer back to Brahms’ virtuosic waltzes, such as Nos.13 and 14. The virtuosic semiquaver triplets in the right hand sounded light, almost playful. The subsequent Più lento featured exquisite, strong (waltz) agogics and a distinct rubato—excellent! A blazingly fast cadenza in virtuosic demisemiquavers leads into the actual Boléro part, Allegro vivace. Here, the artist used very poignant agogics and rubato, made the high peak notes stand out like bright flashes: a personal approach, and certainly an excellent performance, strong, convincing, even compelling—congrats! Is it the technical challenges that make this piece appear so rarely in concert?

Rating: ★★★★½

Schumann: Papillons, op.2

Papillons, op.2, from 1831 is the second “official” composition by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856). The title is French and means “Butterflies”. Papillons is a suite, consisting of an introduction and 12 short pieces, mostly waltzes:

  • Introduzione: Moderato
  • No.1, Waltz
  • No.2, Waltz: Prestissimo
  • No.3, Waltz
  • No.4, Waltz
  • No.5, Polonaise
  • No.6, Waltz
  • No.7, Waltz: Semplice
  • No.8, Waltz
  • No.9, Waltz: Prestissimo
  • No.10, Waltz: Vivo — Più lento
  • No.11, Polonaise
  • No.12, Finale

The Performance

These pieces are all very short, some only a few bars. So, I’m keeping my comments condensed:

No.1 and No.4: Those bright, radiant octaves in the descant! No.1 was an excellent opening, not only proving the artist’s precise touch, but also the instrument’s excellent intonation. The virtuosic, splendid, but very short No.2 was performed twice, which definitely made sense. I have heard No.3 in heavier, even clumsier performances: I think the artist was slightly faster than Schumann’s 1/4=120 annotation. However, the lighter piano sonority at the composer’s time may justify a slightly faster pace. No.5 felt playful, light, reflective—though it is technically not as easy as it sounds! No.6 also felt light—unusually light?—thanks to Claire Huangci’s agile, blazingly fast touch.

Nos.7 – 12

No.7 was a short, singing, cantabile intermezzo, leading into No.8, a full-fingered waltz. After the light No.9, a “hammering” Prestissimo waltz, with a short, but highly agile and virtuosic introduction, also No.10 comes in two parts: a punctuated Vivo opening, followed by a short Più lento fanfare (only a tad slower in Claire Huangci’s interpretation) leading into a rhapsodic section, which the artist kept light, exposing the slightly melancholic cantilena in the descant. No.11 builds up to considerable virtuosity (the artist made this sound easy!): a multifaceted piece, describing a series of vastly different / contrasting sceneries, brilliantly depicted in this performance.

Finally, Claire Huangci made No.12 sound like an overexcited delirium—until in the end, the ghastly spirits disappear around the corner. Brilliant: Schumann’s idea of an arpeggiated ppp chord, held in a fermata—and then successively lowering the dampers (releasing the keys one by one), creating the illusion of another, arpeggiated chord, this time pppp, barely audible: in reality it’s the sounds ending when the dampers touch the strings!

Rating: ★★★★½

Brahms: Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 (Nos.1 – 5)

Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) published his 21 Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 in 1869 (2 books, 5 dances each) and 1880 (two books, 6 and 5 dances). They soon became his most popular (and economically most successful) pieces. However, one should keep in mind, that only 3 of the dances (11, 14, 16) are Brahms’ original compositions, the other 18 pieces are arrangements of music by other (mostly Hungarian) composers. Hence the absence of an opus number. For her recital, Claire Huangci selected the 5 dances of the first book, from 1869:

  1. G minor
  2. D minor
  3. F major
  4. F minor
  5. F♯ minor

The Performance

Hungarian Dance No.1 in G Minor

I really liked the initial, lyric-rhapsodic segment (and subsequent instances). The highly virtuosic sections with their fast semiquaver passages were technically brilliant. To me, however, they soon felt too fast, leaving very little time for “Hungarian” ritenuti, of which there were very few instances only. Yes, Hungarian dances often do end up in a whirling Prestissimo—but they typically (?) take their time to accelerate, to build tension. Claire Huangci seemed very eager to reach virtuosic, blazing speeds quickly.

Hungarian Dance No.2 in D minor

Also this was technically excellent, if not brilliant—but again very fast rather quickly, leaving little time for “Hungarian features”, and occasionally reaching the technical limits, both in agility, as well as in the piano mechanics. True, Brahms repeatedly writes poco rit. and poco sost.—however, this is pure folk music, which (I believe) can be treated with considerable rhythmic / agogic liberty. I did like the central D major part (in tempo) though—clear, gradually accelerating and building up to a virtuosic, intermediate climax.

Hungarian Dance No.3 in F major

I particularly enjoed the initial F major part: light, subtle, atmospheric, misterioso in the sotto voce segments. Also the transition to and the beginning of the central Vivace section felt OK, even though the Vivace was very (too) fast already at the beginning. After the modulation to D minor, the pace was so fast that quick figures became “unreadable”. I temporarily even lost the notion of a persistent, rhythmic flow. Fortunately, the piece ended in Tempo I, which also brought a return to the light and atmospheric beginning.

Hungarian Dance No.4 in F minor

I liked this one more than the first three of the dances: excellent in the cimbalom imitation, which gradually built up tension, picking up tempo towards the Vivace with its virtuosic, jumping left-hand staccato. A second “cimbalom segment” leads into the central Molto allegro: capricious acciaccaturas in the right hand, stunning, jumping staccato figures over multiple octaves in the left hand: brilliant playing!

Hungarian Dance No.5 in F♯ minor

A brilliant, enthralling (but short) Dance No.5 ended the official part of the recital. To me, this came closest to “true Hungarian spirit”, with the strongest rubato so far. It was generally fast, but also technically superb. No, not polished to perfection—but that’s not required with this music!

Overall Rating: ★★★★

Encore — Paderewski: Menuet op.14/1

Recently, in a move to expand her repertoire, Claire Huangci started looking the oeuvre of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860 – 1941), a Polish composer, pianist, politician and statesman. One fruit of this exploration is a CD featuring Paderewski’s Piano Concerto in A minor, op.17, see below. In a video teaser, the pianist said she was wondering why Paderewski’s piano concerto isn’t one of the popular “war horses” in concert life. And indeed, when I listened to Claire’s interpretation, I could only concur. But the artist didn’t stop at Paderewski’s piano concerto:

The Context: The 6 Humoresques, op.14

In her quest for unusual or forgotten repertoire she looked at other works by this composer, and found the 6 Humoresques de concert, op.14. These compositions from 1887 are in two books, comprising

  • Book 1 (à l’Antique)
    1. Menuet
    2. Sarabande
    3. Caprice (genre Scarlatti)
  • Book 2 (moderne)
    1. Burlesque
    2. Intermezzo Polacco
    3. Cracovienne fantastique

As her first encore, Claire Huangci selected the first of the Humoresques, the Menuet in G major, op.14/1 (a.k.a. Menuet à l’Antique). This once was extremely popular in the Western world, up to becoming a real earworm. As traveling virtuoso, Paderewski himself was often asked to play this (as encore, presumably). It was arranged for other instruments, and frequently heard on the radio. It’s for good reason that the piece also carries the surname Menuet célèbre.

Book 1 is labeled “à l’Antique“, and Paderewski modeled the Menuet “after Mozart”. This is very obvious, as the first bars in the theme of Mozart’s Rondo for piano and orchestra in A major, K.386 are actually identical to those in the theme of Paderewski’s Menuet, see my earlier post on the Mozart Rondo for details.

Yes, the piece begins as a harmless, almost trivial minuet. That’s the part that sticks to people’s mind—however, it’s just the initial theme. That once returns in its original form. However, the remainder of the piece is a small set of bravura variations—brilliant and very effective! I’m delighted that Claire Huangci didn’t stop at re-discovering Paderewski’s piano concerto (see below), but that she also dug up this old “hit encore”. It may not be the ultimate value as composition—however, it is far better than its reputation. It demonstrates Paderewski’s level of virtuosity—and, of course, the performance here was splendid!

Encore — Paderewski: Cracovienne fantastique, op.14/6

I like Claire Huangci’s “sense for collections”. She is anything but a cherry-picker! For example, she did not just pick individual Nocturnes by Chopin, or key Préludes by Rachmaninoff, but in either case recorded them in their entirety. Similarly, she did not just pick one or two flashy Scarlatti sonatas, but recorded 39 of them (all 555 sonatas would have required an exceptional amount of resources and third party support). See my earlier posting for references on Claire Huangci’s recordings.

In the same vein, as mentioned above, she did not stop at Paderewski’s piano concerto, but also looked at the Humoresques—and even there, she did not just pick the single most famous one, but studied them all. In Hamburg, on the following day, after the Menuet célèbre, she followed up with the op.14/3 (Caprice à la Scarlatti). Here, she selected the No.6, Cracovienne fantastique (from book 2), as second encore.

The Cracovienne is entirely different in character from the Menuet: strongly rhythmic, with jazzy syncopes, creating a “Boogie feeling”—Paderewski wanted this to be “modern” (mind you, that’s 1887!) and fashionable. And, of course, it is also a flashy virtuoso piece. It allowed Claire Huangci to demonstrate her excellent technical skills, her excellent, emphatic playing—and her penchant for jazzy styles. In Hamburg (an evening recital with an intermission), she continued on that path by adding Friedrich Gulda’s Toccata, the Exercise No.6 from Play Piano Play, as third encore (which I witnessed her performing in several recitals in Zurich).

Addendum: CD

The CD below was released just a few weeks ago: it features Paderewski’s excellent piano concerto, as well as Chopin’s concerto in E minor. I agree with the artist that the Paderewski concerto is underestimated (if not largely forgotten!) and deserves a space on today’s concert repertoire. So far, I haven’t had a chance to study the Chopin concerto on the same CD—nevertheless, I would not hesitate to recommend this recording!

Paderewski & Chopin piano concertos — Claire Huangci / Shiyeon Sung: CD cover

Ignacy Jan Paderewski: Piano Concerto in A minor, op.17
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, op.11

Shiyeon Sung / Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern
Claire Huangci, piano

Berlin Classics 0301096BC (CD, stereo, ℗ / © 2019)

Paderewski & Chopin piano concertos — Claire Huangci / Shiyeon Sung: CD, UPC-A barcode
amazon media link

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