Claire Huangci — Piano Recital
Scarlatti — Tchaikovsky — Beethoven — Prokofiev

Semper-Aula, ETH Zurich, 2015-02-10

3.5-star rating

2015-02-11 — Original posting
2016-08-02 — Brushed up for better readability
2018-06-16 — Added note about Claire Huangci’s success at the 2018 Géza Anda Competition in Zurich

Table of Contents

The Venue

Under the label “Music at the ETH”, the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (Federal Technical University) in Zurich offers a small series of concerts. These events typically take place in the “Semper Aula”, the central room in the top floor shown in the picture above. The dedication of that room is for the architect of the building, Gottfried Semper (1803 – 1879). Semper created world-famous works, such as the Opera House and other buildings in Dresden. But unlike these works, parts of this building never reached completion.

In particular, the room now used for this concert series. The initial purpose of the room was to serve for representative ceremonies of the institution. However, it now remains in its original state, with unfinished decoration. The picture above dates back to an earlier concert in march 2014. The room holds just about 100 seats. The acoustics aren’t all that great. It may not be the optimal venue for concerts, but the location and its atmosphere are definitely special.

The concert discussed here was a recital by the young, Chinese-American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990) who initially studied at the Curtis Institute. Since 2007 she is continuing her studies in Hannover (see also here for additional details). Her program featured four groups of works:

Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757): 7 Sonatas

The general program for the concert season mentioned “three Sonatas”. Later, the amended program listed the sonatas K. 443, 208, 39, and 435). The final leaflet listed seven sonatas (though not quite in the order played), all of them in G major:

  • K.13 (Presto)
  • K.124 (Presto)
  • K.125 (Vivo)
  • K.144 (Cantabile)
  • K.454 (Andante spirituoso)
  • K.470 (Allegro)
  • K.284 (Allegro)

The above list is in the order in which the artist performed them,. Claire Huangci performed these without interruption, and without repeats. This way, they formed a single piece, in which it was hard for the listener to recognize transitions from one sonata to the next. It’s an interesting idea, and the sequence of sonatas was the result of careful selection and consideration. It all made sense, though the resulting “piece” was of course a bit “formless”, lacking recognizable structure.

The pieces obviously presented very little technical challenge, even though they were all played very fast. Her playing was rather romantic, very agile. Maybe she used a little too much pedal, which sometimes obscured the rapid figurations. The acoustics of the room did not help the clarity either. But Scarlatti sonatas are “patient”. Most of them are written for the harpsichord, assuming detailed, baroque articulation. However, even on a modern concert grand, they are still entertaining pieces and fun to listen to.

Pjotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893): Concert Suite “Sleeping Beauty”, op.66

This is Tchaikovsky’s concert suite after the ballet “Sleeping Beauty” from 1890. Claire Huangci played a selection of movements from a transcription for the piano by Mikhail Pletnev (*1957):

Prologue — Dance of the pages — Andante — Grand pas de deux — Finale

Pletnev’s transcription is brilliant. It’s very virtuosic in the Prologue, playful in the Dance of the pages, melancholic in the Andante, very virtuosic again, and with grand gestures in the Grand pas de deux. The Finale is a big waltz in Rondo form. Nice, popular melodies, very well-played (it’s part of Claire Huangci’s debut CD, after all). For me, it’s music which I would not listen to at length, or too often, as it has some “earworm potential”. To me, it lacks some depth. But it’s a spectacular pianistic showpiece nevertheless.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux”

This is one of very few pieces of piano music by Beethoven 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)

Claire Huangci’s technique is flawless, her playing very fluent, very (if not too) legato (too much pedal?). To me, it was lacking tension: Huangci does form long phrases & evolutions, but I found that she lacked some sense for building tension in single intervals, e.g., by holding back the second note by a tiny moment. Together with the legato, the music sounded a bit too romantic to me, lacking “classic clarity”. The exposition was not repeated.

The Andante espressivo (with the annotation “in walking motion, but with lots of expression”) deserves more emotion. It could carry much more expression, more “talking”, like a recitativo, and again feature more agogics in small motifs / figures. The last movement, annotated (freely translated) “as lively as possible“, was indeed fast — but too smooth, i.e., just very fast, almost just running through. Beethoven was a man of big & strong feelings. That music deserves more expression through agogics and articulation!

Sergej Prokofiev (1891 – 1953): Excerpts from the Suite “Romeo and Juliet”, op.75

As another last-minute change, Claire Huangci announced after the Scarlatti that she would like to play the Tchaikovsky first, and the Prokofiev (which is also part of her debut CD) rather at the end of the program. I found that a good decision. I think that the Prokofiev is a better fit to Beethoven’s sonata than Tchaikovsky’s somewhat sweet, pleasant harmonies. Only excerpts were played, namely

  1. Dance of the Girls with the Lilies
  2. Juliet as a young girl
  3. The Montagues and Capulets

Of these, the leaflet meantioned only the latter two, along with numbers 5 (Masks) and 10 (Romeo and Juliet before Parting). However, putting No.6 at the end of the program makes sense. This is a piece which people know and recognize. Also this part of the program was rather romantic, without the harshness that is often put into Prokofiev’s piano music. Somewhat unexpected, maybe? On the other hand, a “soft” interpretation may be justified from the fact that this originates from music for the stage. Also Prokofiev doesn’t necessarily always have to be played in the manner of a “keyboard thunderer”.


The artist gave two encores:

Addendum 1

For a detailed comparison of various recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.26 see my posting Piano Sonata No.26 in E♭ major, op.81a, “Les Adieux”.

Addendum 2

A late post-scriptum to this recital: in June 2018, more than three years after this recital, Claire Huangci won the first prize at the 2018 Géza Anda Competition in Zurich. In addition, she also was awarded the Mozart prize which is given by the Musikkollegium Winterthur. The latter was a result of her performance of the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K.491 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). In the final concert in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich, on 2018-06-12, she performed the Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, op.58, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

I did not follow the competition performances in full length. However, from the snippets that I listened to, it was obvious that Claire Huangci has matured substantially as a personality. And, of course, she has made tremendous progress, both in technique , as well as in interpretation.

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