Piano Recital: Claire Huangci
Scarlatti / Beethoven / Liszt / Schubert

ETH Zurich, 2018-11-20

4-star rating

2018-11-26 — Original posting

Claire Huangci (© Mateusz Zahora)
Claire Huangci (© Mateusz Zahora)
Die Gewinnerin des Géza Anda Wettbewerbes 2018 an der ETH — Zusammenfassung

Scarlatti’s Sonaten sind Claire Huangci wie auf den Leib geschrieben. Subtile Artikulation, agogisch lebendig, schwungvoll in grossen musikalischen Bögen, dazwischen hochvirtuos, mit spielerischer Leichtigkeit, dann wiederum mit grossem Ausdruck, singenden Kantilenen—spannend, aufregend, perfekt!

Wie schon bei Scarlatti, interpretierte die Pianistin Beethovens “Les Adieux” so authentisch wie möglich auf dem modernen Steinway.
“Das Lebewohl”: voll von Emotionen wie Schmerz, Angst, Trennung—nie verlor die Musik an Spannung. Im bewegteren Teil: klare Artikulation und Dynamik, reiche Agogik. Mit ausdrucksvoller Dynamik gelang Claire Huangci eine überzeugende Wiedergabe der “Abwesenheit”. Auch in “Das Wiedersehen” setzte die Pianistin die Vorgaben des Komponisten kompromisslos um. Die unwahrscheinliche Beweglichkeit ihrer Finger, ihre Virtuosität und ihre Fähigkeit, die Kontrolle über ihr Spiel jederzeit zu behalten, immer musikalisch im Ausdruck, ist schlicht phänomenal.

Liszt’s Ungarische Rhapsody in a-moll: ein wahres Feuerwerk in Claire Huangci’s Händen! In den grossen musikalischen Gesten zu Beginn gelang es der Pianistin, die Spannung, den Vorwärtsdrang nicht zu verlieren und den “ungarischen Geist” in der Musik zu behalten.

In Schuberts A-dur Sonate zeigte Claire Huangci, wie detailgetreu sie die Partituren studiert. Die Künstlerin meisterte die Sonate überlegen, technisch sowie mit eindrücklicher dynamischer Differenziertheit. Einzig: Schuberts dramatische Gefühle, innere Anspannung, das Wissen um seinen baldigen Tod in die Musik miteinzubeziehen, gelang der Pianistin nur zum Teil. Dennoch: seit ihrem letzten Auftritt an der ETH vor drei Jahren hat die Pianistin musikalisch und als Persönlichkeit gewaltige Fortschritte gemacht. Und der Preis am Géza Anda Wettbewerb hat ihrer Karriere einen gewaltigen Schub gegeben.

Table of Contents


3.5 years ago, I attended a recital by the American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia). This was a recital at ETH in Zurich, in the series “Musik an der ETH“. I have written about that recital (on 2015-02-10) in an earlier blog post. Three years later, that same artist won the first prize at the 2018 Géza Anda Competition in Zurich. This is a prestigious award that earns the winner a large number of concert engagements. I already attended one of these, an orchestral concert at Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag, on 2018-10-20.

Now, there was another opportunity to witness Claire Huangci’s playing—again in the series “Musik an der ETH”, and in the same venue as in 2015, in the Semper-Aula at the ETH in Zurich.


The recital program in the original announcement was as follows:

  • Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757): 4 Sonatas (K.29, K.208, K.435, K.443)
  • Muzio Clementi (1752 – 1832): Piano Sonata in B minor, op.40/2
  • Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886): Hungarian Rhapsody No.13 in A minor, S.244/13
  • Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828): Piano Sonata in A major, D.959

Closer to the recital, the program featured the Piano Sonata No.14 in C minor, K.457, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) in lieu of the Clementi sonata. That, however, wasn’t the end of the changes. After Claire Huangci finished the Scarlatti sonatas, she announced that Instead of the Mozart sonata, she would be performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux”. As it turns out, this sonata was also part of the program that Claire Huangci already performed in this same venue, back on 2015-02-10.

So, with this “déjà-vu” included, the final program was as follows:

Concert & Review

D. Scarlatti: 4 Keyboard Sonatas (K.29, K.208, K.435, K.443)

It‘s not the first time that Claire Huangci chose to start her recital with keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757): she did the same in her earlier recital in this venue, on 2015-02-10, where she started her program with seven assorted sonatas, all in G major. This time, she selected the following four sonatas:

Of course Claire Huangci did not follow the order of the Kirkpatrick numbering. Rather, she arranged the pieces such that they formed a „Sonata in D major“, starting with an Allegro (K.443), followed by a slow movement in A major (K.208). The Presto sonata (K.29) took the role of a Scherzo, and K.435 (Allegro) added a brilliant closure:

The Performance

I was happy to note that this performance confirmed my impressions from Claire Huangci’s concert a month ago. The artist has gained in personality and self-assuredness since her previous appearance in this venue. It’s of course not only the 3.5 years that have passed since, but her win at the 2018 Géza Anda Competition in Zurich sure has given her (and her career, I’m sure) a tremendous boost!

Sonata K.443 in D major: Allegro

Claire Huangci started her recital emphatically, with verve, and full of expression. She shaped every phrase with rich, expansive dynamics, and lively agogics gave every motif its own voice. A joy- and playful performance with whirling trills that also kept an eye on the dialog between the various voices, and at the same highly differentiated in articulation and ornamentation (with added ornaments in the repeat segments). An excellent opening, indeed!

Sonata K.208 in A major: Adagio e cantabile

While maintaining a calm basic pace, the artist again used rich, expressive agogics and phrasing to shape this short, serene movement. The dynamics were expansive in the first part, but retracted for the gentle, lyrical, slightly melancholic second half—early classical, sensibility (Empfindsamkeit), if not almost romantic sentimentality from the first half of the 18th century?

Sure, it’s much, much more than instruments (harpsichords) could do at Scarlatti’s time. Purists may call this too much / excessive. However, even though I’m strongly favoring historically informed / “correct” performances, I felt that Scarlatti’s music supports this type of view. These sonatas are far less bound to the language of a specific instrument than, say, keyboard music by Bach and contemporaries. Actually, one can take Claire Huangci’s performances as a clear sign that Scarlatti was ahead of his time in many ways!

Sonata K.29 in D major: Presto

Truly presto, and very virtuosic, full of momentum, light, with highly agile playing, smooth and elegant, but differentiated scales, garlands up and down the keyboard. Very fast, such that the figures start intermingling in the listener’s ear: still, Claire Huangci’s playing is clear and always fully in control—excellent! Towards the final bars, she seemed to “seize the pace” with gently pounding octaves in the bass. What joy to listen to!

Sonata K.435 in D major: Allegro

One could see this as a study for repeated notes. Here, however, it all was so effortless, yet impulsive, virtuosic, and full of life that the idea of a study (essercizio) seemed really far-fetched!

Overall, the combination of these four sonatas (in a way, forming one bigger, “early classical” sonata) were a brilliant opening to this recital! As stated, I’m usually not a friend of baroque music on modern instruments (in particular, modern concert grands)—but this performance was definitely as good as it can be on a modern Steinway—thrilling, exciting, and superb!

Rating: ★★★★★

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux”

This is one of very few pieces of piano music by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) with a (sketchy) “story” behind, as indicated by the titles / annotation for the three movements:

  1. Das Lebewohl / Les adieux (The Farewell): Adagio — Allegro
  2. Abwesenheit / L’absence (The Absence): Andante espressivo (In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck)
  3. Das Wiedersehen / Le retour (The Return): Vivacissimamente (Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße)

For more information on the composition see my report about Claire Huangci’s earlier performance in 2015, as well as a separate posting with a comparison of several recordings of this sonata.

The Performance

When musicians use a table computer, then it’s usually as a modern replacement for sheet music (and Claire Huangci definitely used a foot-operated panel to control the tablet, i.e., to “turn pages”). Here, the tablet in addition served as a prompter for Claire’s announcement of the program change (see above). I actually doubt that she really needed it, as her German is fairly good and easy to understand: thanks for talking to the audience!

I. Das Lebewohl / Les adieux (The Farewell): Adagio — Allegro

Adagio: after the resigning opening motif (Le-be-wohl), the interpretation was full of emotion, expressing the pain of separation, anxiety, tension. As simple as the musical texture may be, one should not underestimate how difficult it is to maintain the “proper” amount of suspense, i.e., not to drop the tension for a moment, but at the same time not to exaggerate! Here, listeners instantly got “pulled in”, waiting for the fast part of the movement:

Allegro: Clear articulation, impulsive, alert, especially in the accents, the sudden, expressive crescendi. The artist swiftly highlighted of peak notes in phrases, used lively, emotional agogics. She was equally alert in secondary melodic lines, and transitions between voices / hands were seamless. Despite the rich agogics, the many mood swings in Beethoven’s music, Claire Huangci compellingly managed the overall dramaturgy, the big, dramatic arch.

I can only repeat myself here from above: I’m definitely a fan of Beethoven performances on the fortepiano—but here, I felt that this was as good as it can ever be for a concert performance on a modern Steinway D-274!

II. Abwesenheit / L’absence (The Absence): Andante espressivo (In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck)

A single, big, emotional recitative: using agogics and again very expressive dynamics, Claire Huangci had the music talking in the smallest of phrases and motifs. Especially initially, I felt a slight impatience—but that’s exactly what Beethoven wanted: he annotated “Andante espressivo” and in addition “In gehender Bewegung, doch mit viel Ausdruck“: In a walking movement, however, with lots of expression. The longing sentiment during the friend’s absence causes a mix of holding tension and despair. The expressive dynamics, the ritardandi are actually in Beethoven’s score, and Claire Huangci offered an excellent rendition here!

III. Das Wiedersehen / Le retour (The Return): Vivacissimamente (Im lebhaftesten Zeitmaße)

Also here, Claire was truthful to Beethoven’s annotation: as lively as possible! Indeed, the tempo was as fast as humanly possible, literally overflowing from joy and happiness, also through agogics and dynamics. Youthful, boisterous, jubilating in the highest of spirits. The enthralling expression aside, the performance also demonstrated Claire Huangci’s extreme agility in her fingers, her virtuosity, and her ability to control the flow, the dynamics, without ever being even just a tad mechanical. A most worthy winner of the Géza Anda Competition!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.13 in A minor, S.244/13

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) composed 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies—pieces based on Hungarian folk tunes, imitating the sound of the cimbalom, and often also using the Hungarian “Romany scale”. In addition, the music uses frequent, sudden ritenuti and accelerandi—so typical of Hungarian folk music. More than that, actually: when people think of Hungarian folk music, they actually now think of Liszt’s Rhapsodies! The Hungarian Rhapsody No.13 in A minor, S.244/13 is among the lesser known ones. It features the following tempo annotations:

Andante sostenuto — Più lento — Tempo I — Più lento —
Poco più mosso — Vivace — Un poco meno vivo — Presto assai

The Performance

The performance started with some big musical gestures. At the same time, Claire Huangci was able to maintain the tension, the flow, and an overall pull forward. Also here, her playing was impulsive, especially in the ornaments, the lively expression. I felt that this music very much suits her temperament. It was expansive in dynamics and rubato, really appassionato, and truly expressing Hungarian spirit—to a degree that often reminded me of the legendary performances by the late György Cziffra (1921 – 1994).

The artist made the piano sing, especially in the central appassionato, and across the keyboard, down in the bass, in the middle voices, as well as in the glowing melody fragments in the descant. The first, “slow” (Andante, though with highly virtuosic “cimbalom scales and parades”) ends in the finest ppp. In the score, the following Vivace part continues pp. In Claire Huangci’s performance, though, there was no holding back, and the Vivace started with a veritable ff explosion. I’m sure this was deliberate and purposeful, as it fitted the expressive, if not explosive, Hungarian style of the performance: true fireworks, indeed!

Rating: ★★★★

Schubert: Sonata in A major, D.959

The Sonata in A major, D.959 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) is the middle one in the triad of the final three piano sonatas (C minor, D.958; A major, D.959; B♭ major, D.960). All three are major masterworks, which Schubert composed 1828, in the last months of his short life. The sonata in A major comes in four movements:

  1. Allegro (4/4)
  2. Andantino (3/8)
  3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace (3/4) — Trio: Un poco più lento (3/4)
  4. Rondo: Allegretto (4/4) – Presto

The Performance

I. Allegro (4/4)

As expected, also this sonata exposed Claire Huangci’s “handwriting”: her expansive dynamics in every little phrase—much more than what the score indicates, and of course with her lively agogics. At times, the music sounded rather youthful, the second theme (bars 28ff) seemed a tad faster than the beginning, slightly pulling forward, turning pensive, reflective only in the pp at bar 55.

Death Threat?

Maybe, at times, this performance was a tiny bit too light (should I even say harmless in the attitude?). To me, this music (as in all three late sonatas) carry the burden of Schubert’s awareness of death approaching quickly. Yes, the ascending chromatic scales in bars 82ff had a menacing aspect, but why then was there this constant pull forward? The abrupt general rest in bar 112 that followed the eruption of the preceding bars came as a surprise, but it lacked the devastating view into an abyss, or this feeling of the heartbeat stopping for a moment. Also, it was too bad that the repeat of the exposition fell prey to the time restrictions in this recital.

However, I don’t want to be misunderstood: Claire Huangci’s playing was excellent, very expressive, with sometimes almost explosive dynamics (e.g., in the central section, the climax of the development part), her virtuosity impressive. However, to me, it (sometimes) lacked some of the aspect of despair, the scary moments that I see in this music. Yes, Schubert was only three years older than the pianist—but he was facing the imminent threat of death!

II. Andantino (3/8)

I liked the calm, stepping tempo, but also here, I think there is more despair, more tension in the music (in every bar!) than what we heard. Maybe the rhythm was a little too regular, at least in the first part? Should there have been a little more agogics within every bar, in the left hand? Yes, Claire played carefully—so careful that she rather risked losing an occasional note. But perfection is not the point here.

I liked the central part / second half better: there were conflicts, despair, rebellion, even though the part with the rolling demisemiquaver and hemidemisemiquaver scales was a bit too virtuosic, the playing maybe too smooth. I think that around the climaxes, this movement could be even more expressive, more rebelling, if not aggressive. This would also make the ending desperate rather than just peaceful.

Overall, I found the performance in this movement not fully compelling, maybe “not 100% there yet”? OK, that’s criticism at a very high level…

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace (3/4)Trio: Un poco più lento (3/4)

Here now, the tempo was a little on the fast side. Yes, the annotation includes vivace, but I think the harmlessness of the first part is just pretended. Why otherwise would there be this violent ff eruption / crash in the second part? I see a bitter taste in Schubert’s music—the performance could have shown more of this.

In line with the Scherzo, the tempo in the Trio—albeit a bit slower—is at the upper limit, which takes some of the weight out of this music.

Despite my quibbles: Claire Huangci’s playing was excellent also here, not just technically, she showed excellent control over her keyboard touch, and she knew how to exploit the excellent sonority of the Steinway grand.

IV. Rondo: Allegretto (4/4) – Presto

Even though in my opinion, it did not quite reach the level of performance of the initial pieces in the recital, there was no doubt in my mind that this was Claire Huangci’s best movement in this sonata. I liked her singing tone in the Lied theme, the dialog of voices, and how she let the emotions flow. And also here, I enjoyed the very differentiated dynamics. In this artist’s hands, the Lied melody was far more than peaceful and reflective: rather, it was urging and intense, with emotional outbursts. Sure, the music could show more bittersweetness, maybe ambiguity in the atmosphere.

Also here, some of the general rests lacked the scary perspective, were not as frightening as they could be. Some were maybe even partly shortened by some excess sustain pedal. And when the tempo switches to Presto in the Coda, this is far more than a final, virtuosic build-up, but the carousel of life, which starts turning faster and faster, relentlessly moving towards its final, fatal destination…

But again: my quibbles are at a fairly high level. Claire Huangci’s playing was superb, technically masterful, impressive in dynamic control and differentiation. And Schubert’s sonata of course didn’t fail in touching the listener’s heart!

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Encore 1 — Gulda: Suite for Piano, E-Piano and Drums — III. Aria (in stile italiano)

The famous Austrian Pianist Friedrich Gulda (1930 – 2000) was also a fairly unconventional composer. One of his compositions is the Suite for Piano, E-Piano and Drums. From this work, Claire Huangci performed the third movement, “Aria (in stile italiano)” in a version for piano solo. It’s serene, peaceful, calm music, closer to “true” baroque than to neobaroque, full of playful ornaments, arabesques. It’s maybe reaching the limits of sweetness—but that’s one of the features which makes it so typical of Gulda: an artist and composer who didn’t care about conventions and standards.

One may claim that the Aria is bordering on shallowness—at this point, though, after Schubert‘s emotional outbreaks, it was definitely a suitable, a good choice. And it was good to be reminded of one of the great pianists of the last century—and Claire Huangci demonstrated an amazing ability to dive into Gulda’s world and character: thanks for this lively reminiscence!

Claire Huangci @ ETH Zurich, 2018-11-20 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Claire Huangci @ ETH Zurich, 2018-11-20 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Encore 2 — Gulda: Play Piano Play — Exercise No.6, Toccata

The final encore was again by Friedrich Gulda. This time, Claire Huangci selected a virtuosic piece from Gulda’s collection “Play Piano Play“, a set of Jazz exercises.

Exercise No.6 is a Toccata, annotated “Presto possibile“. It’s a short piece that—even within its small dimensions—reminds of the perseverance and virtuosity of the Toccata in D minor, op.11 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953). In addition, it adds a Jazz component with drive and a strong “Boogie feeling”.

In this second encore, Claire Huangci exposed even more of her affinity to the pianist, composer and Jazz musician Friedrich Gulda.

Beyond his lyrical, cosy and sentimental side, Claire now convincingly demonstrated that her scope covers highly virtuosic Jazz as well. She threw herself into the whirling tone repetitions, burst out in Gulda’s Jazz explosions, the enthralling, groovy Boogie component: a strong ending to a fascinating concert!

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