Piano Recital: Claire Huangci
Schubert / Mussorgsky

Klavierissimo Festival 2023

KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2023-02-24

4.5-star rating

2023-03-16 — Original posting

Claire Huangci (© Hitomi Image)
Claire Huangci (© Hitomi Image)
Frühromantisches Spätwerk und ein Gang durch eine Ausstellung: Claire Huangci am Klavierissimo Festival 2023— Zusammenfassung

Die jetzt in Frankfurt / Main lebende amerikanische Pianistin Claire Huangci (geboren 1990 in Rochester, NY, als Tochter chinesischer Einwanderer) präsentierte sich am diesjährigen Klavierissimo-Festival in Wetzikon mit einem Programm aus zwei Teilen:

Vor der Pause erklang die späte Klaviersonate in A-dur, D.959 von Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). Auch wenn Claire Huangci nicht den Weg einer “titanischen” oder einer dezidiert abgeklärten Sichtweise wählte, so war ihre persönliche Interpretation dennoch ausgezeichnet, vermochte genauso gut Schubert’s Gefühle von Angst, Verlorenheit und Verzweiflung auszudrücken. Ohne Zweifel hervorragendes Schubert-Spiel!

Nach der Pause stieg die Pianistin um auf russisches Repertoire, mit den bekannten “Bilder einer Ausstellung” von Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881). Eine ausgezeichnete, technisch und musikalisch hervorragende Interpretation. Und dass zu Zeiten der russischen Invasion in der Ukraine der Zyklus mit einer eindrücklichen Beschreibung des Bogatyr-Tores von Kiev endete, setzte dem Abend die Krone auf.

Die begeisternden Interpretation ließen keinen Zweifel am Wunsch nach einer Zugabe. Die Pianistin erinnerte an den anstehenden 150. Geburtstag von Sergej Rachmaninoff (1873 — 1943) und spielte aus den Morceaux de fantaisie op.3 das zweite Stück, das bekannte Prélude in cis-moll, op.3/2.

Table of Contents


Venue, Date & TimeAula KZO, Wetzikon ZH, 2023-02-23 19:30h
Series / TitleKlavierissimo Festival 2023
OrganizerTop Klassik Zürcher Oberland
Reviews from related eventsReviews from Klavierissimo Festivals: 2018 | 2019 | 2020 (Beethoven) | 2022 | 2023
Concerts organized by Top Klassik Zürcher Oberland
Concerts in the Aula of the KZO, Wetzikon ZH
Concert reviews featuring Claire Huangci
Media reviews featuring Claire Huangci

The Klavierissimo Festival 2023

The Klavierissimo Festival is an annual event that takes place in the main convention hall of the regional high school (KZO, Kantonsschule Zürcher Oberland) in Wetzikon ZH (close to Zurich). For concert reviews from earlier instances of the Festival see the set of links (first line in the “Reviews from related events” box above). The Festival runs over four days. This year, it happened between 2023-02-22 and 2023-02-25. It featured a series of piano recitals, culminating in several recitals on the last day. I chose to attend three of these recitals:

Claire Huangci @ Klavierissimo 2023, Wetzikon ZH, 2023-02-24
Claire Huangci @ Klavierissimo 2023, Wetzikon ZH, 2023-02-24 (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved)

The Artist: Claire Huangci

The American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia) definitely doesn’t need an introduction here. After all, I have written about her in reviews from well over a dozen live performances—see the links above. Claire Huangci now lives in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. This concert was a very welcome opportunity to witness the artist again, over 1.5 years after the last encounter.


Setting, etc.

The concert venue, a high school convention hall in the form of a semi-circular theater (in a circular building) can hold audiences of up to around 350 people. The Klavierissimo Festival rarely fills it to more than 30 – 40%. I took a seat in the upper third, in the right-hand side block. The acoustics are perfect in that position, the view excellent, especially for taking photos.

The instrument was a Steinway D-274 concert grand in excellent condition, prepared by Bachmann Pianos, Wetzikon.

Concert & Review

Franz Schubert, 1846, 3D Portrait
Franz Schubert, 1846

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major, D.959

Composer & Work

The Piano 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

I have reviewed earlier concert performances of Schubert’s piano sonata in A major, D.959. In one of these (2018-11-20), the artist was Claire Huangci. That was almost 4.5 years ago—years in which the artist’s personality (musical and otherwise) has evolved considerably. So I won’t focus on comparing this performance with the previous one.

How to Approach Schubert’s Late Sonatas?

For pianists, Schubert’s late sonatas pose the question of whether and how to express the composer’s despair. Some might argue that the artist must express the composer’s exasperation, his outcry and rebellion against his fate, in the face of the fact that his life was going to end so early. The music alone certainly shows the composer’s state of mind: should one emphasize or even reinforce that? Or, could it be that Schubert’s late sonatas compensate for the adversities in the composer’s life? After all, aren’t there many examples of composers who, in miserable circumstances, wrote serene, cheerful, even joyful works?

What I’m trying to say is: should a pianist try to remain “objective” / keeping a “distant view”, i.e., let the music “do its work”? Or, should one rather identify with / assume the composer’s position and even amplify his grief and despair? For me, a typical example of the latter approach would be the immensely moving recordings of Schubert’s late sonatas by Sviatoslav Richter (1915 – 1997), in which the composer’s desolation is palpable. I’m not saying that the latter approach is better or the only valid one. It also depends on the artist’s personal experience (and perhaps life situation). What makes an interpretation “valid” is whether it is sincere, personal, and comes from the artist’s heart. And whether the artist is able to connect with the audience through the music.

The Performance

I. Allegro (4/4)

Based on Claire Huangci’s previous concert performance, I did not expect her to try an approach of “extreme compassion”, i.e., to point out how “big” and “thought-heavy” Schubert’s composition is. Her tempo was fluent (not too fast, though), articulation and sonority clear, her dynamics and phrasing diligent and careful, her touch control excellent. Interestingly, she took the second theme (bars #6ff) noticeably faster. Only towards the pp in bar #55, she returned to the initial pace. Also the climactic segment in bars #95 – #111 (a sort of “development part within the exposition”) featured the faster pace again.

Too bad the pianist did not repeat the exposition. One might say that there is so much complexity in the exposition already, that this makes it feel like a “sonata movement in itself”. Then again, one could argue that exactly because of this, a repetition would help keeping the overview in Schubert’s almost monstrous sonata construct. But OK, Schubert’s sonata is maybe long enough already?

Throughout Claire Huangci’s subtle, diligent and detailed dynamics and agogics were striking. In the recap part, the fine tempo alterations mirrored those in the exposition. They actually helped maintaining the tension throughout the long movement. How the artist turned the coda (bars #314ff) “inwards and away, into a world beyond” was both marvelous and highly moving.

II. Andantino (3/8)

Beautiful: introverted, resting in itself, at the same time expressing forlornness, seeking, melancholy, bitter-sweetness. Extreme subtlety and diligence in agogics and dynamics. Starting in bar #69, there is a very long, but controlled build-up that erupts into violent ffz beats (bars #123ff). After this, it takes the composer around 16 bars to calm down. The coda (bars #147ff) then felt otherworldly, transfigured, ravishingly beautiful. The momentary grumbling, soft after-shocks in the bass were mere memories, which soon gave way to an atmosphere of peace, hope—not without moments of thoughtfulness, melancholy and sadness, resignation, though.

Claire Huangci’s interpretation was masterful and moving. At the same time, I admired the structural clarity (the diligent dynamics) in her interpretation, as well as the clarity in articulation and phrasing.

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

Excellent—and a typical “Claire Huangci-Interpretation”! Agile, active to the point where one got the impression that the artist was sitting “on the edge of the chair”. Transparent, playful, light, in the first part (here, she observed all repeats). The lightness and agility persisted through the longer, more dramatic second part, where she avoided over-dramaticizing. At the same time, there wasn’t anything superficial, ever (neither musical not of course technical). The artist’s never appeared to show off virtuosity—that’s merely a natural “ingredient” in her playing.

The Trio was devoid of heaviness in the articulation, the pace just a little slower than the Scherzo—as annotated. Claire Huangci managed to combine the reflective attitude with light and clear articulation—just as attentive and active. And the transitions were excellent!

IV. Rondo: Allegretto (4/4) – Presto

A fluid, natural tempo, flowing. Calm, no trumping up in the Rondo theme, beautiful cantilenas, introverted, yet highly diligent and careful in articulation and phrasing, down to small details, such as the ascending staccato quavers prior to the double bars. Despite the attention to phrasing and articulation, Claire Huangci was never “dissecting” the music.

Marvelous also the first episode, with the naturally flowing quaver triplet lines in the descant, with luminous, blooming sonority. At the same time, the artist devoted full attention to articulation and dynamics in the two melody lines in the left hand. And the music was breathing at all times, the transitions were so harmonious (e.g., the return to the Rondo theme in bar #212). Nothing was ever forced or over-dramaticized, but also (again) never superficial.

Excellent! The impression that the artist didn’t “show off” corresponded with what one could see. Claire Huangci often uses lively, but very harmonious, relaxed arm movements / gestures. At the same time, she always maintained focus and concentration, exhibiting only minimal facial mimics.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Coming back to my initial remarks above: Claire Huangci’s is not a “Richter interpretation”. One might say that her approach is a more “distant” one. However, that does not imply that her interpretation was ever superficial: nothing less than that. Sure, in a “dramatic” interpretation, the general rests in the final 50 bars feel more scary, if not devastating. However, in lieu of the horrors that these rests present in a dramatic interpretation, Claire Huangci’s both excellent and personal performance was equally good at expressing Angst, forlornness, and despair. An outstanding Schubert performance, for sure.

Modest Mussorgsky, 1870 (source: Wikimedia; public domain)
Modest Mussorgsky, 1870

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Composer & Work

1874, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) composed his piano cycle “Pictures at an Exhibition“. This describes a visit to an exhibition of paintings by Victor Hartmann (1834 – 1873). A recurring Promenade indicates the strolling from one (set of) picture(s) to the next:

  • Promenade
    • No.1 Gnomus — The Gnome
  • Promenade
    • No.2 Il vecchio castello — The Old Castle
  • Promenade
    • No.3 Tuileries — Children’s Quarrel after Games
    • No.4 Bydlo — Cattle
  • Promenade
    • No.5 Ballet of Unhatched Chicks
    • No.6 ‘Samuel’ Goldenberg and ‘Schmuÿle’
  • Promenade
    • No.7 Limoges, le marché (La grande nouvelle) — Limoges, The Market (The Great News)
    • No.8 Catacombae (Sepulcrum romanum) & Con mortuis in lingua mortua — Catacombs (Roman Tomb) & With the Dead in Dead Language
    • No.9 Избушка на курьих ножках (Баба-Яга) — The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)
    • No.10 Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве) — The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kyiv)

This description is taken from the review of a recital on 2019-02-02, in this very same location. I have given more detailed explanations in the review from a recital in Lucerne, on 2018-11-23.

The Performance

Promenade, the “refrain” in the entire cycle, bears the annotation Allegro giusto, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto. One might translate this as “Just (reasonable) Allegro, in the Russian mode, without cheerfulness, but not very sustained”. This sounds rather cryptic (what is “Russian mode”?). However, the cycle is very popular. So, there is plenty of tradition (especially from the orchestral version) that can offer advice on what the “right” tempo is.

Promenade — Gnomus —

As outlined above, through tradition, the “signature piece” in this cycle, Promenade, leaves little room for interpretation in terms of tempo. Claire Huangci compensated this with differentiated dynamics. The theme segments firm, determined, decidedly f, then instantly taking back the volume, carefully forming harmonious dynamic arches in the chordal responses, and from bar #9 on, she not only formed a beautiful arch, but kept the music “speaking” through articulation and dynamics.

In Gnomus, Mussorgsky composed the erratic, unpredictable movements of a gnome. In Claire Huangci’s hands, these appeared as rapid, virtuosic ff bursts. The intermittent again with very careful dynamics and agogics—a balance between urge and holding off, full of tension, if not suspense. The Meno mosso formed an impressive sonorous climax, both hands in octaves. In the second half of this part, the artist added trills in the right hand, to further amplify the sonority. These trills anticipated those in the menacing bass of the subsequent Poco a poco accelerando section, ending in the final, virtuosic outburst.

Promenade — Il vecchio castello —

For the second instance of the Promenade, the composer changed the annotation to Moderato commodo assai e con delicatezza. Claire Huangci kept this all sotto voce, reflective, pensive, like a distant memory—ending in a pp “question mark” (curiosity about what’s up in the next picture?

Il vecchio castello (Andante molto cantabile e con dolore): fluid in the tempo, but calm, steady in the left-hand pulse. Expressive and highly differentiated in agogics and dynamics. An extended reflection about past grandeur and glory, maybe picturing scenes from a distant past?

Promenade — Tuileries — Bydlo —

The next Promenade (Moderato non tanto, pesamente) opened as a sonorous, grandiose dialog between the two hands. It then retracts in the final bars, ending hesitantly, “small”: the visitor bowing down to have a close look at a miniature picture?

Tuileries (Children quarreling after play, Allegretto non troppo, capriccioso): playful, light, agile, fluid, but highly differentiated, detailed and careful in dynamics and phrasing

Bydlo (The Oxcart, Sempre moderato, pesante): big sonority, and grand dynamic arches, the tempo not too heavy (I remember much slower performances), but moving forward, even accelerating slightly in the middle part with the chords in the right hand, switching back to the pesante pace where the initial theme returns.

Promenade — Ballet of Unhatched Chicks —

The next Promenade bears the annotation Tranquillo. Claire Huangci made the first bars, high up in the descant, sound all fragile, glassy, subtle—and it was fascinating to observe the color changes up to the climax in this short intermezzo.

Ballet of Unhatched Chicks (Scherzino: Vivo, leggiero) is a movement that ideally suits the artist’s agility, the lightness of her touch: fast, concise, clear in the articulation—and at the same time depicting the wild, unpredictable / erratic movements of a flock of chicken (are they really still in their shells?). The Trio with its constant trills in the descant was truly glittering: fascinating, virtuosic, masterful!

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle —

The next “picture”, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle (Two Polish Jews: one rich, one poor), contrasts two characters (Andante: Grave, energico — Andantino — Andante, Grave). In the initial “Goldenberg” segment, Claire Huangci avoided caricaturing the rich man as gross and heavy: she focused on the energico (energetic) expression, with the powerful, almost “steely” octave parallels. The demisemiquaver and hemidemisemiquaver triplet upbeats were very short and ultra-precise.

In the Andantino, the “Schmuyle” semiquaver triplets were anything but mechanical—rather “trembling resonances” after the accented first note. This persisted through the last part, where these triplets are right-hand octaves (the “Goldenberg” octaves now in the left hand). Not a technical study, but flexible, and musically shaped down to the tiniest detail: masterful!

Finally, this instant mood swing after the fermata (poco ritardando, con dolore): sudden sadness, introversion, regret, disappointment? The forceful ff closure felt like a violent, insulting curse.

Promenade — Limoges, le marché —

For the last instance of the Promenade, Mussorgsky repeated the annotation of the opening, just leaving out the senza allegrezza part: Allegro giusto, nel modo russico, poco sostenuto. In a few bars, the composer added more “filling notes” (chords, rather than just empty intervals) in the right hand. This may have contributed to the “heavier” impression in comparison to (memories from) the first instance. Of course, the experience from the six preceding “pictures” makes it impossible to create a 1:1 replica of the opening piece. And also the listener’s perception is a different one than at the beginning.

“The Market Place in Limoges” (“Big News”, Allegretto vivo, sempre scherzando): technically perfect, light, agile, with precise touch. An excellent depiction of the restlessness, the hodgepodge of an incessably busy market place!

Catacombae / Con mortuis in lingua mortua —

In Catacombae—Sepulchrum Romanum (Catacombs—Roman Grave, Largo), the composer gave no pedal instructions, just ties and phrasing bows. Claire Huangci kept the sustain pedal down for the first three bars: the way in which the initial ff note kept resonating into the two subsequent p bars was stunning! In the following bars, the composer uses a similar effect, when the ff notes are to be held for two bars each, while the bass and the right-hand middle voice moved for the second bar, again p (and diminuendo over a fermata!).

The effect of music and interpretation was a mix of scare from darkness and death, as well as awe for the mysteries surrounding such a place. Claire Huangci played this rhythmically free. With this, the descant notes in bars #17 – 22 formed a tiny recitative: an angel’s voice, or the begging of a lost soul?

The final ff was merely an echo from the earlier, pounding beats—for a seamless transition into Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language, Andante non troppo, con lamento): trembling in eerily descending chromatic scales. The left hand (in lingua mortua, actually the Promenade in dark colors!) appeared to talk about ups and downs in life in a distant past—finally finding transfiguration and solace. Gripping and touching!

The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga) — The Bogatyr Gates

The Hut on Hen’s Legs” (Baba Yaga, Allegro con brio, feroce — Andante mosso — Allegro molto): great music, depicting a grotesque scenery. Claire Huangci’s tempo was fast, her virtuosity, the clarity, the precision of her touch amazing, as was the sonority that she achieved on the Steinway D-274. Excellent!

The Finale, The Bogatyr Gates (Allegro alla breve, Maestoso, Con grandezza — Meno mosso, sempre maestoso — Grave, sempre allargando): what a fitting closure, depicting the grandeur of “The Great Gate of Kyiv” at a time when Russia is invading Ukraine! Here, the sonority was nearly overwhelming. In the first part, the effect of the two senza espressione segments was striking: monks singing an Orthodox chorale, in archaic harmonies. The never-ending, grandiose build-up, the huge (but always controlled) sonority—it all left an overwhelming impression.

Rating: ★★★★½

A truly superb interpretation!

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Encore — Rachmaninoff: Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3 — No.2, Prélude in C♯ minor

Composer & Work

In announcing her encore, Claire Huangci mentioned that this year (actually 2023-04-01) marks the 150th birthday of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943). That’s a composer that has long played an important role in her repertoire. Claire has recorded Rachmaninoff’s complete set of 24 Préludes, see the CD reference below. In 2019, I have attended two recitals where Claire Huangci performed 11 out of these Préludes, including the famous Prélude in C♯ minor, the No.2 from the Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3.

The annotations in this Prélude are Lento — Agitato — Tempo primo.

The Performance

I have very little to add here. Rachmaninoff had huge hands, spanning a twelfth, and the Tempo primo part of this Prélude is written on four (!) staves, mostly fff pesante, with two instances of sffff. Claire Huangci once stated in an interview that her hands are relatively small, so she certainly had to think about fingering, etc.—however, I never noticed any restriction in her Rachmaninoff performances, and it’s good to have these on CD (see below).

The choice of encore was excellent, not just because of the composer’s upcoming anniversary, but just as much because if (musically) fitted the ending of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures”. And it gave a testimony for Claire Huangci’s format in performing Rachmaninoff’s works

Claire Huangci’s Encore on CD

Rachmaninoff: The Préludes — Claire Huangci (CD cover)

Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Préludes (opp.3/2, 23, 32)

Claire Huangci, piano

Berlin Classics 0301075BC (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 2018
Booklet 20 pp., en/de

Rachmaninoff: The Préludes — Claire Huangci (CD set, UPC-A barcode)
amazon media link

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