Piano Recital: Claire Huangci
Bach / Bach/Busoni / Beethoven/Liszt

Landenberghaus, Greifensee, 2020-09-11

4-star rating

2020-09-17 — Original posting

Nach dem Lockdown: Claire Huangci in einem faszinierenden Rezital — Zusammenfassung

Claire Huangci nutzte den COVID-19 Lockdown zur Erweiterung ihres Repertoires: zuerst wollte sie sich (als rasche Lernerin!) alle 1 – 2 Tage ein neues Stück aneignen. Doch entschied sie sich schließlich, statt dessen die Transkription von Ludwig van Beethovens Sinfonie Nr.6 in F-dur, op.68, “Pastorale” in der brillanten Bearbeitung für Klavier zu zwei Händen von Franz Liszt anzugehen. Diese Bearbeitung ist technisch, interpretatorisch und kräftemäßig eine große Herausforderung. Claire Huangci bewältigte diese meisterhaft, überzeugte mit sorgfältiger Artikulation, ausgezeichneter Dramaturgie—und natürlich technisch hervorragend. Und sie spielte die ganze Sinfonie (annähernd 40 Minuten) auswendig—und in zwei Konzerten am gleichen Tag!

Die Pianistin eröffnete das Rezital mit der Toccata in D-dur, BWV 912, von Johann Sebastian Bach: ein oftmals “wildes” im Stylus fantasticus. Hier erklang das Werk natürlich auf dem modernen Flügel—in einer relativ romantischen Interpretation, doch ohne dynamische Übertreibungen, sorgfältig in der Artikulation, leicht, transparent—gelegentlich vielleicht eher zu gemäßigt.

Das zweite Werk im Rezital, Bachs Toccata und Fuge in d-moll, BWV 565, ist wohlbekannt—sowohl also Orgelwerk, wie auch in Bearbeitungen. Aus mehreren Transkriptionen für Klavier zu zwei Händen wählte Claire Huangci die effektvollste (und vermutlich auch technisch herausfordernste) von Ferruccio Busoni. Die Künstlerin meisterte diese hervorragend und überzeugend, speziell in der hinreißend gestalteten Fuge.

Zugabe: die Nr.3, “Clair de lune“, aus der “Suite bergamasque” von Claude Debussy.

Table of Contents


Formally, that was the second concert that I attended and reviewed in the old little town of Greifensee: the first one was a song recital with piano trio on 2016-01-23. Since then, however, the Landenberghaus, an historic building whose walls date back to medieval times, was carefully deconstructed (except for the walls). The roof was restored (with the old tiles), the interior completely rebuilt. The main hall serves as community hall, event venue, and concert hall.

The principal local organizer of cultural events, the Kunst Gesellschaft Greifensee (Arts Society Greifensee) organized this piano recital — the first concert(s) after the COVID-19 lockdown. Physical distancing and hygiene rules precluded filling the venue. Instead, the concert was performed twice on the same day (17:30h and 20:00h), with only around 1/3 of the seats available, and without intermission.

The Artist: Claire Huangci

Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia) does not need to be introduced. So far, I have attended and reviewed 9 (!) concert performances by this artist (5 solo recitals, 4 concerts with orchestra). Apart from one single exception, that’s more than for any other artist. Why so many concerts & reviews? Well, the obvious explanation is that Claire Huangci is an excellent artist, with highly exceptional technical skills, and at the same time an astounding, natural musicality that fits her refreshing, open personality. Overall, I have yet to hear a performance of hers that would not justify & reconfirm her first prize at the Concours Géza Anda 2018 in Zurich.

Also, Claire Huangci’s concert repertoire is broad. It spans from baroque to classic works, on to romantic and late-romantic composers such as Rachmaninoff, and beyond. With this the chances of running into “repeat concerts” is minimal. And, of course, it is always both a real pleasure and highly interesting to observe how she is expanding her repertoire.

Claire Huangci not only has very successfully launched her career as concert pianist, but she also has produced a substantial number of recordings, see the discography at her Web site. I have referred to some of her recordings in earlier reviews, such as from a recital on 2019-03-01.


Just like in her recital on 2019-12-08, Claire Huangci opened her program with a work by Bach—not the same as here, of course. The recital continued with another composition by Bach—through the eyes of Ferruccio Busoni, though. The biggest part of the program was a symphony by Beethoven—in Franz Liszt’s arrangement for piano, 2-hands:

Setting, etc.

The hall was “full” (the concert sold out), with around 30% of the seats occupied, as mentioned above. I attended the second of the two identical recitals on that day. I opted for a seat in the last row, which gave me a chance to take photos without disturbing others. The Kunst Gesellschaft Greifensee offered me a free ticket for this event — thanks a lot!

The piano was a Steinway B-211 grand piano in excellent condition, prepared by Bachmann Pianos, Wetzikon.

Concert & Review

Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata in D major, BWV 912

This is one of seven Toccatas (BWV 910 – 916) that the young Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) composed around 1708. They can be seen as the “crop”, the result from his trip to Lübeck, from which he returned in 1706. For an introduction into the composition see my report from a recital in Aarau on 2017-04-23.

The program leaflet listed not just the work below, but also this under “Bach/Busoni”. That is only half-correct: as far as I could tell from following the score, Claire Huangci performed Bach’s original composition (on the modern piano, of course). She may have adopted the piece using Busoni’s edition of Bach’s keyboard works. If this was indeed the case (which I doubt), then there is still “very little Busoni in it”. Busoni did not arrange or transcribe the Toccata BWV 912—he merely was the editor / publisher. At most, he may have added fingerings and possibly extra annotations.

Certainly, the first bars instantly dispersed my confusion about the “Busoni contribution” here: definitely “Bach, non-Busoni”. The latter sure could not have resisted adding octave doublings in the left hand in the introduction!

The Performance

In an attempt to limit duplication, let me keep this short, by referring back to my review of Claire Huangci’s performance of Bach’s Partita in B minor, BWV 831 (“French Overture”) last year, on 2019-12-08 in Schaffhausen. That review gives a good description of the artist’s approach to Bach.

(Introduction, 4/4)

The Introduction of the Toccata is a prime example of Stylus fantasticus. I can’t resist comparing what I heard to a typical HIP / harpsichord performance: Claire Huangci did not try exacerbating the “wild”, “phantastic” aspect of these 10 bars. I found them relatively fluent, albeit with distinct agogics in every phrase. The “trembling” in bar 8 did not try to shake up, rather felt “embedded”, a transition to the closing phrase. Certainly well-played, but a little too tamed? I would have preferred more of a “grand opening gesture”, a provoking “statement”. Maybe with some exaggerating rubato even?


Allegro (4/4)

Also this expectedly was a rather “pianistic” approach: relatively fluent / snooth, though definitely with excellent, careful articulation, highly transparent, light, clear. The artist carefully brought out every single theme head and the associated comes (response in the second voice) in what could be seen as a 2-part fugato or canon. I found the occasional f / p contrasts perfectly adequate and appropriate. Bach didn’t add any dynamic annotation, but one can sure assume a double-keyboard harpsichord or organ.

Adagio (4/4)

Although Bach’s beginning (bars 68 – 78) clearly alludes to the Stylus fantasticus introduction, Claire Huangci took a gentle, subtle and rather romantic approach, with delicate and careful dynamics. The three “trembling” motifs rather felt like distant reminiscences of their counterparts in the introduction. I personally favor a more “flamboyant”, maybe even wild approach to these bars.

The main part of that “movement” is essentially a three-part invention—careful in articulation, detailed in the dynamics, though without unnecessary excesses. Still relatively gentle (elegant even, at times), romantic overall.

Finally, in the closing cadenza (con discrezione), Claire Huangci at last gave a flavor of improvisation-like Stylus fantasticus! Why not in the previous instances?

(Fugato, 6/16)

Clear in the articulation, transparent, carefully crafted and detailed dynamics. In the latter, though, albeit lacking excesses, the f bars occasionally bordered on “predictable” (waves rather than contrasts?), making the movement feel a tad short-breathed, obscuring the view on the longer phrases, the overall structure. Did the artist (sub-consciously?) realize this, and was this maybe the reason for the slight acceleration in the second part?

Bach’s Toccatas leave little or no room for extra ornamentation—just occasionally, the score offers alternate readings (from an earlier version, presumably). I was glad to note that Claire Huangci selected the ending with the mordent on the last tone!

Overall Rating: ★★★½

Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 — arr. Ferruccio Busoni

Most people know the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 as an organ work. It is one of the most famous compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), if not in the entire organ literature. However, in recent decades, there have been numerous speculations around this work: some suggested that the composition was originally for solo violin. On top of that, some people even have doubts about Bach’s authorship (for whichever original instrumentation). Also, even if it is indeed by Bach, the date of the composition is under debate. Suggestions range from as early as 1704, up to 1750, near the end of Bach’s life.

Nevertheless, the piece’s fame led to numerous arrangements, from several piano arrangements up to orchestral versions. The piece clearly is a Toccata, with an embedded fugue in the second part. In Busoni’s transcription, both parts appear merged into one.

Busoni’s Transcription

Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924) was both a composer, as well as a prominent virtuoso at the piano. On top of that, he has arranged numerous works by other composers—most notably Bach—for the piano. Among his Bach transcriptions are well-known works, such as the Chaconne from the Partita No.2 in D minor for violin solo (BWV 1004), or the Toccata, Adagio & Fugue, BWV 564, a grandiose organ work. And, of course, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, listed as BV-B 29/2.

Busoni’s arrangements go well beyond a simple transcription. His intent is not, to reproduce or imitate the baroque soundscape. Rather, Busoni aimed at achieving the biggest impact on audiences in the concert hall. He filled and expanded (and often romanticized) the harmonies, and he exploited all of the sonorities and vast dynamic scale that the modern concert grand is offering. Bach at a nearly orchestral scale, seen through the eyes and ears of a late-romantic arranger / composer.

The Performance

Was there any doubt whether there was a Busoni contribution in the first piece in Claire Huangci’s program? The very first bars made it clear that only here, we truly found ourselves in the realm of Busoni’s transcriptions!

Toccata: Adagio — Prestissimo — (meno Presto) — Prestissimo – Quasi adagio

Seemingly effortlessly, Claire Huangci achieved a big tone, exploiting all the sonority that the Steinway B-211 offered. Equally effortlessly, she performed the rapid preluding passages fast and virtuosic, but without ever invoking the keyboard thundering that many artists would dwell into.

For example: in the bass, her interpretation didn’t feel like an attempt to imitate the 16′ and 32′ stops on a big organ. Apart from the fact that this is hardly possible anyway. In this environment, on this instrument, Claire Huangci’s approach made sense: this music (and its transcription) is impressive even if the performance does not feel ostentatious, pretentious. I found it to be impressively clear, clean, without ever feeling “aseptic”. The only “disadvantage” in this interpretation: the Toccata part may have felt shorter than expected (there were certainly no omissions, though!).

Fuga: Allegro sostenuto — Recitativo — Adagissimo — Presto — Vivace

The true grandeur in Busoni’s transcription came out in the fugue: Claire Huangci mobilized her astounding power reserves, while retaining the clarity of her virtuosic playing.

The artist carefully followed Busoni’s pedaling annotations: initially, the transcription reads legato senza pedale then tenuto, quasi legato, and poco legato—only where the fuge turns intense and the textures grow denser, Busoni writes con pedale. My only, minor quibble: the slight acceleration some 8 bars after the mezza voce to me felt unnecessary, maybe partly defeated the consequence of the build-up. Did the artist feel that the fugue started a tad slow?

More and more, Claire Huangci seemed to be completely immersed in the music, she built up an impressive musical and dynamic arch, pulling the audience into a highly virtuosic climax in the Recitativo and the concluding PrestoVivace. Both the music and the performance left the audience speechless, overwhelmed!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, “Pastorale” — arr. Franz Liszt

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) composed and completed his Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, “Pastorale” (Pastoral Symphony) in 1808. The first performance happened in the same year, in Vienna.

  1. Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande (Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside): Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Szene am Bach (Scene by the brook): Andante molto mosso
  3. Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute (Merry gathering of country folk): Allegro
  4. Gewitter, Sturm (Thunder, Storm): Allegro
  5. Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm (Shepherd’s song. Cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm): Allegretto

Liszt’s Transcription

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) transcribed all of Beethoven’s symphonies for piano, 2-hands. I have in the past written about concert performances of the transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E♭ major, op.53, “Eroica”—see my reports from concerts on 2015-03-24 and on 2015-12-12 (both in Zurich). Within Liszt’s work, the transcription of Beethoven’s Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, is listed as S.464/6.

At least in my personal view, Franz Liszt’s transcribed Beethoven’s symphonies not with the intent of a grandiose pianistic show. Rather, he appears driven by the genuine intent to make the music in Beethoven’s orchestral works available to a wider audience.

The Performance

As Claire Huangci explained at the end of the performance, she entered the lockdown with the intent to learn a new piece about every day, or every other day. She is a fast learner! However, she soon changed that decision and started focusing on major “chunks”, namely Beethoven symphonies in Franz Liszt’s transcription. Successfully, it seems: here, she performed Beethoven’s op.68 entirely by heart, and without a single memory lapse! And she did so twice on the same day, despite the exhaustive length and Liszt’s virtuosic and power-draining piano setting! There aren’t many pianists on the planet who would tackle this!

I. Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande: Allegro ma non troppo

I had the impression that Claire Huangci did not primarily attempt to deploy “orchestral forces” on the grand piano. Rather, she presented Beethoven’s music through the “filter” of her instrument. Rather, she used her artistic capabilities to present Beethoven’s musical content by exploiting the specific strengths of her instrument. Most obviously, with the freedom of a single artist (as opposed to an orchestral body), she enjoyed the ability to add more, distinct agogics—already in the very first phrase: excellent!

No, Claire Huangci did not dwell in pianistic excesses or produce a virtuosic show. Still, it feels like carrying owls to Athens when I state that her playing was excellent throughout. A true pleasure: clean, clear and diligent in articulation and careful and detailed in the dynamics, throughout the movement. And it felt so imaginative, colorful, maybe even more evocative and full of life than Beethoven’s original?

It was a pleasure to note how she brought out secondary voices, but also how she was able to maintain the calm in the musical flow. At the same time, she showed no difficulties in mastering Liszt’s wide-spanning piano textures and their polyrhythmic structures. And the lucidity, the atmosphere! One of the touching highlights in the movement was in the serene pp around bar 285, or the p moments in the final bars—so subtle and intimate!

No, the artist did not repeat the exposition. Musically, that’s a pity—however, given the special circumstances (and her playing this twice on the same day), this is no less than understandable.

II. Szene am Bach: Andante molto mosso

Even more than the first movement, the Scene by the Brook turned out a true idyl, serene, calm, lucid, with exceptional clarity. I liked the very rolling trills (faster than a flute can do?): bird calls in the top voice, starting in bar 33. And the slight restraining after the long trill in bar 40, and the reflective moments that follow. It takes a lot of calm, diligence, discipline, and a good overall view, in order to maintain the musical flow, the narration.

With the exception of short, momentary obscuring, the movement remains serene. But around such slight, subtle obscurings, the artist seemed to reinforce the radiance of the bird calls in the top voice (e.g., around bar 62). The music (and the artist’s superior pianistic abilities) made the listener forget the complexity in Liszt’s piano textures: amazing!

An interesting detail, which Claire Huangci certainly observed: Liszt’s score bears annotations such as Fiati (wind instruments), Fl. (flute), Ob. (oboe), Cl. (clarinet). And it retains the explicit references to bird species (nightingale, cuckoo, quail). This is a clear indication that the transcription is more than an exercise in pianistic brilliance.

III. Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute: Allegro

Fast, dancing, virtuosic, playful, sleek, yet careful and detailed, excellent both musically, as well as technically! And Claire Huangci did the full da capo, full of drive, even intensifying towards the end of the second pass and into the coda, towards the approaching of the storm…

On a related note: I could not resist smiling when the slow, rather clumsy interpretation by Otto Klemperer (1885 – 1973) passed my mind. I don’t mean to say that Klemperer’s view is necessarily bad—but the contrast to Claire Huangci’s interpretation could not be bigger!

IV. Gewitter, Sturm: Allegro

A true, breathtaking storm, with lightnings and rolling thunder! In my view, it was highly virtuosic, yet focusing on expression (and the narration), rather trying to reproduce the sonority of the orchestra (better than the latter, actually!). Excellent in the dramaturgy, taking the listener through the turmoil of the storm, through the climax, and into the calming down while the thundering moves into the distance). And the transition to the following Shepherd’s Song was as seamless as it could possibly be:

V. Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm: Allegretto

The last movement harmoniously led up to a jubilating culmination. The music then retracts into a serene, soothing and reflecting period—just to build up to waves of even longer, over-joyful climaxes. No quibbles at all??? Well, maybe one short moment of excess sustain pedal in bars 177f.—but what’s that in relation to the outstanding challenge of such a performance, almost 40 minutes of complex, power-draining piano score?

Rating: ★★★★½

Most outstanding, for sure—congrats!

Presumably, Claire Huangci wanted to carry over some of the momentum from the Busoni transcription into the Beethoven symphony. Only after that Liszt transcription, she explained to the audience, how she arrived at tackling this challenge—it definitely was more than worth the effort!

Encore — Claude Debussy: No.3, Clair de lune, from Suite bergamasque, L.75

Finally, Claire Huangci announced an encore: the third movement, “Clair de lune“, from the Suite bergamasque by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)—another piece that she picked up during the lockdown. A virtuosic work could barely fit such a concert—and even this reflective, serene and atmospheric composition only fitted thanks to the break with Claire Huangci’s explanations. But then, it was the ideal choice: soothing, slightly melancholic, thoughtful. A pity somebody’s phone started playing music right at that moment…

Thanks, Claire, for another enlightening and fascinating recital!

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