Piano Recital: Claire Huangci
D. Scarlatti / Schubert / Rachmaninoff

Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2019-11-20

4.5-star rating

2019-11-27 — Original posting

Claire Huangci (© Mateusz Zahora)
Claire Huangci (© Mateusz Zahora)
Glänzende Eröffnung der “Debut” Kurzserie am letzten Lucerne Piano Festival — Zusammenfassung

Die Sonaten (K.443, K.208, K.29, K.435) von Domenico Scarlatti und Sergej Rachmaninoffs acht Préludes (op.3/2, op.23/1 – 7) waren für mich ein déjà-vu: Claire Huangci hatte diese bereits am 1. März dieses Jahres in Zürich gespielt, in einem sehr erfolgreichen Einspringer-Rezital. Neu für mich waren hingegen die vier Impromptus (D.935) von Franz Schubert. Claire Huangci traf die Stimmung dieser Stücke ausgezeichnet—ohne unnötiges Pathos, tragische Schwere, wie man sie oft in Aufführungen von Schuberts Spätwerk hört. Trotzdem fand ich ihre Interpretation sehr überzeugend, subtil und natürlich, oft sehr berührend: hoffentlich findet diese Interpretation ihren Weg auf eine CD!

Die Zugabe: zwei der ungarischen Tänze von Brahms (WoO 1)—Vorgeschmack auf ein Konzert in der Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, am 9.12. dieses Jahres. Dahin schaffe ich es leider nicht, doch findet die “Hauptprobe” für Hamburg am Vortag in Schaffhausen statt—Grund zur Vorfreude!

Table of Contents


About the Concert

I’m not attending much of this year’s Lucerne Piano Festival, even though it’s apparently the last one of its kind. Apart from the tickets cost for regular concerts in the KKL and the travel time, etc., the one reason for my limited attendance may be the same that probably caused the organizers to discontinue the Lucerne Piano Festival: too many concerts!

These days, the schedule of Festivals in Europe (and elsewhere) is so dense that it is difficult to find a suitable time slot (who is claiming classical music is dead?!). It may also be harder to find sponsors offering financial support. And, of course, with so many festivals and concerts it isn’t easy to mobilize enough audience to make such an event economically viable.

So, this year, I’m merely attending three “Debut Series” recitals in Lucerne’s Lukaskirche. This was the first one of the three.

Setting, etc.

The venue was sold out, as one could already tell from the queue prior to the opening of the doors. I had a seat in the right-hand side block in the nave—the right-most seat in row #7. The acoustics are good in that position, even though not directly in the focus (projection line) of the Steinway D-274 concert grand. And also the visibility was just OK: as I was mostly either scribbling notes or reading the score on my iPad, it was enough to be able occasionally to glean at the artist through the people: I could even observe the artist’s pedaling, if and where I wanted to.

The Artist

That wasn’t my first encounter with the American pianist Claire Huangci (*1990, see also Wikipedia). In fact, prior to this recital, I have heard her in concert five times. Here is a list of these concerts, with links to my blog reviews:

Every single one of these encounters has been a refreshing experience—it is a real pleasure to hear and watch Claire Huangci perform! And actually, I plan on hearing her in a recital again in a few weeks, in December!


Scarlatti and Rachmaninoff are cornerstones in Claire Huangci’s concert repertoire (and in the very respectable discography that she accumulated so far!). So, every solo recital that I heard her perform so far started off with a selection of 4 – 7 sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti—and this one was no exception:

As it turned out, this program was mostly a repeat of earlier recitals: the exact same Scarlatti sonatas also opened the last two solo recitals that I attended (see above), and the very same 8 Préludes by Rachmaninoff also were part of the last recital on 2019-03-01.

Repeat Programs?

Of course, artists don’t always switch program with every recital, and repeat programs don’t need explaining, as long as they happen in different locations, and for different audiences (which definitely was the case here). On top of that, in Claire Huangci‘s last solo recital (on 2019-03-01), she was replacing a colleague at very short notice—too short to put together a new & exclusive program. Moreover, this recital is an important one for the artis. It is a potential door opener for further concert opportunities. So, she probably wanted to play safe by taking repertoire that she knows would be successful.

As for my part: I don’t mind repeat concert experiences (definitely with pianists such as Claire Huangci!). Every encounter brings new insights, opens up new views into an artist’s playing. Plus, one can watch how the artist’s interpretations evolve over time. Of course, new repertoire also means a fresh, hopefully thrilling experience. And so I was happy to note that Claire’s upcoming recital in December will feature no repeats at all in the programmed part—not even Scarlatti sonatas!

Concert & Review

Claire Huangci, Debut Recital @ Lucerne Piano Festival, 2019-11-20 (© Peter Fischli)
Claire Huangci, Debut Recital @ Lucerne Piano Festival, 2019-11-20 (© Peter Fischli)

Domenico Scarlatti: 4 Sonatas

Claire Huangci chose to open her recital with keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757). She had done the same in both her earlier solo recitals that I attended. On 2015-02-10, she started her program with seven assorted sonatas, all in G major. In the last two of her recitals (2018-11-20, and again on 2019-03-01), she selected the following sonatas:

  • K.443 in D major: Allegro
  • K.208 in A major: Adagio e cantabile
  • K.29 in D major: Presto
  • K.435 in D major: Allegro

For these sonatas, I refer to my review from the concert on 2019-03-01 for further comments. There, you find also details about the CD set with Scarlatti Sonatas that Claire Huangci produced in 2015.

In this review, I try not to repeat my comments from the last concert. Rather, I’m focusing on aspects in Claire Huangci’s playing that (in my perception) have changed or evolved since I heard her last time.

The Performance

As in all previous encounters, I noted Claire Huangci’s fresh (but not light-hearted), self-confident appearance on stage: resolute, even sporty, despite the high heels. If she experienced any bit of stage anxiety, this did not show up at all in her behavior and performance. Claire Huangci knows about her abilities at the instrument, and she also knows exactly where her limits are—if there are any!!?

Sonata in D major, K.443: Allegro

I know Claire’s Scarlatti recordings from 2015 inside out (I have listened to these numerous times!), and I still remember her playing in these sonatas in concerts last year and 8 months ago. In the latter, her performance already sounded rounder, more organic—maybe giving up a little bit of crystal-clarity in favor of a more harmonious & natural performance. I now noted this tendency even more. Her playing has gained freedom, life and personality—to the degree that she is freeing herself from technicalities, being able to enjoy her own performance without the need to follow details in articulation meticulously.

Her playing is still clear, sure, maybe even a tad faster, her agogics and dynamics more liberal. There is no superficiality, but she leaves time for trills, sets highlights in phrases every now and then (not arbitrarily, of course!). Very obviously, she is enjoying the playing and the music. I’m not talking about a super-human performance, though. At the beginning, in the part up to the repeat sign, a few, very minor mishaps crept in (listeners had to be fast to note!): a matter of adjusting to the environment, the instrument, the atmosphere? However, already the second part made the audience forget about this.

Sonata in A major, K.208: Adagio e cantabile

Calm, but playful: since the last performance, Claire Huangci’s interpretation not only gained freedom (as mentioned above), but it also became richer: there were so many new ornaments. And all of them felt so natural, so fitting, so much in proper, baroque manner: excellent, what a joy! After all, it’s primarily in slow movements where in baroque times artists must have improvised ornaments to their liking (and ability).

As an aside: In the area of ornamentation, there are a few exceptions to the above. Examples: compositions where composers (such as Bach) have already written out in the score the (all?) ornaments they wanted / felt being appropriate.

Sonata in D major, K.29: Presto

Claire Huangci’s fast Scarlatti were always—real fast. Here, it now seemed even faster. And the artist seemed to enjoy not just the music, but her own playing! She even allowed herself some subtle extravaganzas in dynamics, accents, and highlights. However, she sure knows how far she can take the tempo without losing detail: she must be “eating Scarlatti for breakfast”!!

Sonata in D major, K.435: Allegro

Above, I stated that Claire Huangci has truly grown “into this music” and knows exactly how far she can take the tempo. This doesn’t imply that she is always extra-cautious not to exceed her limits: cautious playing is unlikely to produce convincing results. Rather, was willing to take risks. And she again was faster than in previous performances, taking it right up to the limits (right before superficialities would start creeping in): sparkling, glittering, sprinkling in highlights, with some almost explosive details.

Overall, I can only re-state from my previous reviews: I am not aware of any better Scarlatti playing on the modern piano. It seems almost fashionable to play one or the other Scarlatti sonata in concert these days, be it as part of the program, or as encore. And some notable / famous artists are sporting top-speed performances. I would claim that Claire Huangci is just as fast, if not faster in these same sonatas. More importantly, however, her playing exhibits more genuine musicality, so much life—and is so far from a pure, dead speed contest!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Schubert: Four Impromptus, op.posth.142, D.935

In 1827, aged 30, Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) composed two sets of four Impromptus. He published the first one under the title “4 Impromptus, op.90” (later to become D.899). The remaining four of the Impromptus were published only after the composer’s death, in 1839, under the title Four Impromptus, op.posth.142 (later known as D.935):

  • No.1 in F minor: Allegro moderato
  • No.2 in A♭ major: Allegretto — Trio
  • No.3 in B♭ major: Andante (Theme with 5 Variations)
  • No.4 in F minor: Allegro scherzando

Prior to this recital, I had heard these four Impromptus in concert once in their entirety, almost a year earlier, on 2018-11-22. This was also in Lucerne, though in the big hall of the KKL.

The Performance

My personal curiosity in this concert of course was on Claire Huangci’s Schubert Impromptus, as I hadn’t heard these with that artist so far. But before delving into details, let me start with some general remarks:

Late Works?

When looking at the Schubert discography (or listen to typical, concert performances), I got the impression that the main theme / aspect of Schubert’s late works is in their pondering with fate, with the tragedy of the composer’s impending early death, his suffering, the scare of looking down into the abyss of the inevitable. I have very much adopted this, and certainly would not accept performances that take these works just lightly and playful. This does not necessarily imply a huge, dark tone from a modern concert grand—though many pianists produce exactly that.

With the performance in this recital, however, I realized that yes, the tragedy is real. However, at the same time, the composer was only just 30 when he wrote the Impromptus—and Claire Huangci is almost exactly that age! In other words: Schubert wasn’t all that old, relatively speaking. Even though at age 30, people must have felt older in the early 19th century than they do now.

Impromptu No.1 in F minor: Allegro moderato

I instantly noted a relatively fluent tempo. Claire Huangci stays truthful to the articulation. She follows the dynamics of the score, but does not overcharge crescendo and punctuations. She marked the fz chords in bars 4, 10, and equivalents. Interestingly, though, these chords did not stand out nearly as much as anticipated (each of these follows a crescendo to f, but the following notes are p). That solution definitely makes sense to me.

Especially starting with the semiquaver theme in bar 13, it was remarkable how much differentiation in dynamics and agogics the artist put into the semiquaver line with the hidden melody, while at the same time keeping the left hand accompaniment very subtle and discreet. She increased the volume towards the ff octave parallels (bars 39ff), but maintained the dynamic differentiation, never overloaded the music.


The pp theme (bars 45ff) felt spiritual, yet kept the fluent pace, though without allowing for any superficialities. The bars leading into the repeat segment were even more ethereal, refined, subtle to the extreme. Actually, in general: the refinement in dynamics, the excellent balance between the hands throughout volume excursions in the serene A♭ major segment were absolutely remarkable. The pianist maintained the internal balance, no matter how different the “language” in the two hands was (e.g., continuous semiquavers vs. scarce melody fragments in the jumping left hand).

Already the first Impromptu convincingly demonstrated how well Claire Huangci is able to capture the melancholy, the atmosphere in this music. She did that without resorting to a dilated pace, let alone building up “thundering fff tragedies” in volume: she remained moderate in the ff. The sound was lucid, often light, but never superficial, nor ever harmless. Yes, the “tragic, heavy view” remains an option. However, at the very least, this is a valid, convincing (if not compelling) alternative. Actually, considering the sound of historic instruments at Schubert’s time, I think that Claire Huangci’s view is much closer to the original sound than many (or most) others on a modern concert grand!

Impromptu No.2 in A♭ major: Allegretto — Trio

In terms of tempo and expression, this Impromptu was certainly much closer to “common expectation” than the first one. The artist used an excellent dose of agogics, of course still avoiding exaggerating tragic dilatations. She was careful in dynamics, pedaling, articulation and phrasing—and again very, very subtle in the soft segments.

The Trio with its flowing quaver triplets had a fluent pace, but kept the focus on the melody / cantilenas. Again subtle in the dynamics, the music formed an impressive arch, building up to an intense climax that culminated in the bass trill in bar 76. This at the same time seemed to vent the internal pressure: a very touching moment, after which the music was allowed to relax towards the double barline (end of the second part).

Claire Huangci’s interpretation was truthful to the score, but never dogmatic—rather all-natural and atmospheric. Very subtle (especially in the dynamics), but never inappropriately tender / mellow.

Impromptu No.3 in B♭ major: Andante (Theme with 5 Variations)

Theme—an interesting observation: Schubert sure wasn’t gifted with very large hands, and his piano writing is nowhere near the complexity of Rachmaninoff’s. Still, his compositions often must have exceeded the composer’s own capabilities. An example: in bar 8, the right hand has a chord that spans a tenth that some pianists may perform as plain chord. Claire Huangci (who concedes that her hands are small, yet states that she doesn’t want to leave out any notes) used a discreet arpeggio. Schubert sure would have done that as well. I also noted that in this piece, the pianist (fittingly) used more poignant agogics than in the previous Impromptus.

Variation 1: excellent legato cantilena in the descant! Variation 2: playful, light, joyful, with an abundance in sparkling semiquavers. Variation 3 in B♭ minor—unavoidably in Schubert’s late works—turns towards an earnest, serious, reflective mood, with added, expressive agogic freedom around highlights (e.g., bar 72).

I liked the harmonious transition to the Variation 4 in G♭ major, and even more so the next one into Variation 5, with a sudden modulation to B♭ major—so typical of Schubert! Claire Huangci performed the semiquaver triplet chains and scales blazingly fast, with astounding clarity, lightness, and differentiation in agogics and dynamics.

A truly masterful performance in the pianistic prowess, and just as much as interpretation, in the transitions, the atmosphere, the spirit, and the really touching ending!

Impromptu No.4 in F minor: Allegro scherzando

Truly Allegro scherzando—and rather fast. Claire Huangci isn’t “playing safe”. Quite to the contrary: she is willing to take risks. Indeed, occasionally, she exceeds the limits, not all of the semiquaver figures retain the full detail. There are artists who claim that a good performance mandates taking risks—sometimes up to the “point of life and death”. If I remember correctly, both Patricia Kopatchinskaja (*1977) and Vilde Frang (*1986) have made strong statements along these lines.

On the other hand, the scherzando accents retain their full poignancy, maybe stand out all the more. Of course, this is not a studio recording session—expression is far more important than perfection to the smallest detail.

While there may have been some missing notes in the alternating semiquaver figures, the semiquaver and demisemiquaver scales—some of them even parallel—were blazingly swift and near-perfect: amazing! Equally astounding: how the artist managed to make some pp passages in the descant glassy, fragile, almost like flageolet.

To summarize: yes, Schubert’s health was failing, and mentally / emotionally he must have been very mature (judging from his music). But still, that does not necessarily imply that his music ought to sound like that of the late Brahms, or the late Liszt. In fact, Claire Huangci proved that she is able to convey Schubert’s pain, his tragedy, the melancholy in his music. And she can do that without resorting to excess darkness and dilations, to oppressing darkness and slowing down to the extreme. In fact, without declaring Schubert defeated or even dead prematurely!

I don’t mean to say that Claire Huangci’s interpretation is the one and only valid view—but this artist shows that there are alternatives to a “mainstream performance”. I can just say: more of this, please!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

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

In analogy to Chopin’s 24 Préludes op.28, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) wrote 24 Préludes, also covering all major and minor keys. Unlike Chopin, though, Rachmaninoff started off in 1892, with a single Prélude, the number 2 from his Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3, featuring

  1. Elégie in E♭ minor, op.3/1
  2. Prélude in C♯ minor, op.3/2
  3. Melody in E major, op.3/3
  4. Polichinelle in F♯ minor, op.3/4
  5. Serenade in B♭ minor, op.3/5

Among the 24 Préludes, the one in C♯ minor, op.3/2, remained the composer’s most popular one ever since.

As this is the second time I heard the artist with exactly this set of Préludes (this one and the seven from op.23 below), I refer to my review from the concert on 2019-03-01 for further comments. There, you find also details about the CD set with all of Rachmaninoff’s 24 Préludes that Claire Huangci produced in 2018.

In this review, I try not to repeat my comments from the last concert. Rather, I’m focusing on aspects in Claire Huangci’s playing that (in my perception) have changed or evolved since I heard her last time. These remarks also apply to the section below, about the artist’s selection of Préludes from op.23.

The Performance

Already with the pounding opening chords, Claire Huangci proved that she has more to offer than filigree agility and speed: there was power, big, rounded piano sonority. It was well-controlled and without excess force, through: big, not loud. And she demonstrated the usual, excellent control in balance and dynamics. A prime example was already in how the pp chords in the right hand gently echoed the heavy, low and dark bass notes.

The Agitato than was very fluent, flowing, legato. Wasn’t there something about small hands?? Rachmaninoff’s piano writing definitely counted on an immense finger span. However, throughout the Préludes, Claire Huangci masterfully avoided omitting notes, through unnoticeable changes in the fingerings and the occasional, discreet extra arpeggio—unnoticeable to listeners without a score or in-depth knowledge of the piece.

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

Rachmaninoff: Nos.1 – 7 From 10 Préludes, op.23

In his second set, in 1903, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) presented the following 10 Préludes, op.23, seven of which Claire Huangci selected for her recital:

  1. F♯ minor: Largo
  2. B♭ major: Maestoso
  3. D minor: Tempo di minuetto
  4. D major: Andante cantabile
  5. G minor: Alla marcia
  6. E♭ major: Andante
  7. C minor: Allegro
  8. A♭ major: Allegro vivace
  9. E♭ minor: Presto
  10. G♭ major: Largo

My comments here are fragmentary. For an explanation see above.

The Performance

Prélude in F♯ minor, op.23/1: Largo

Calm, but flowing, with excellent agogics and differentiation in both hands, down to the semiquaver figures in the accompaniment. The cantilena in the right hand was singing so nicely, appearing completely independent, as it crossed the semiquaver accompaniment, out of which gradually an additional melody line was emerging. Inevitably, the wide-spanning chords in the final bars were arpeggiated; did that hurt or alter the character of the music? Not at all—it seemed to fit, suite the music very well!

Prélude in B♭ major, op.23/2: Maestoso

Truly grandiose, not just Maestoso—stunning in its grand gestures, the big “waves”, the big, harmonious and well-rounded sonority! Highly virtuosic, “big” piano tone, and a masterful performance of this masterpiece! The only complaint I have is that Rachmaninoff should have made this a longer piece!

Prélude in D minor, op.23/3: Tempo di minuetto

The grandeur of the B♭ major Prélude made this initially sound almost (too) light, even light-weight as a composition. Did the fact that the pianist omitted the repeat in the initial part contribute to this impression? The dominating second part is much longer, though, and has not repeat signs. It gradually built up virtuosity and sound, then retracted into a mysterious, ghastly ending.

Prélude in D major, op.23/4: Andante cantabile

Such a beautiful cantilena in the right hand. And these sonorous waves in the left hand, with their harmonious legato sonority! The beauty of the melodies made the listener ignore the complexity, the intricacies in Rachmaninoff’s piano score! Claire Huangci was spanning a single, big arch over this piece, without ever exaggerating or forcing the sound.

Prélude in G minor, op.23/5: Alla marcia

Was it the contrast to the D major Prélude that made this sound relatively fluent? The tempo did not feel too fast, though. However, it still was at a point where the piano mechanics only just managed to follow the fast semiquaver staccato (the pianist was again taking risks here!). I liked the fact that Claire Huangci was holding back the poco a poco accelerando that leads back to the initial march theme: this successfully avoided the irritating impression of an accelerating steal locomotive. Impressive, highly virtuosic playing!

Prélude in E♭ major, op.23/6: Andante

A single, big arch over several, lyrical waves, with a broad, intense climax, though with controlled dynamics, limiting the volume to f at the maximum. That’s what the composer intended.

Prélude in C minor, op.23/7: Allegro

Amazing, this permanent line rolling, rapidly flowing semiquavers amidst the initially scarce accompaniment, this gradually built up a grand tone, a sonority which seemed to imitate that of the pedal in a big organ!

Overall Rating: ★★★★½

As in the Scarlatti sonatas, I felt that Claire Huangci is gradually liberating herself from the meticulousness if a strict score reading, gaining extra freedom and personality. Sure, the church acoustics may have contributed to this impression. Here, the CD recording is much closer in time (2018, see again my notes on the last recital in 2019-03-01), but still: if I go back to the CD recording, the difference is remarkable! That does not imply that I rate one higher than the other. Both the concert and the CD have their own merits. The CD feels more restrained, closer to the score, but offers vastly more clarity and detail, as expected for a studio recording. In the end, both put Claire Huangci into the front line of the pianists performing these Préludes.

Claire Huangci (Concours Geza Anda 2018, © Priska Ketterer)
Claire Huangci (Concours Geza Anda 2018, © Priska Ketterer)

Encore 1 — Brahms: Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor, WoO 1/1

No, no Gulda for the encores this time, unlike in recent concerts! Rather, Claire Huangci selected two of the Hungarian Dances, WoO 1 by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), in Brahms’ own arrangement for piano (the original dances were for piano 4-hands). The background for that selection: Claire Huangci is giving her first recital at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg on 2019-12-09 (congrats for that premiere!). A selection of these Hungarian Dances forms the last part of the program for that recital. So, these encores also served as rehearsals for Hamburg. The full rehearsal for the Elbphilharmonie will take place the day before the event, on 2019-12-08, in Schaffhausen. And I’m more than happy to grab that opportunity!

Claire Huangci selected the first one of these dances, the Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor. She not only played with those typical, Hungarian “bells and whistles” (i.e., ritenuti, dramatic accelerations), but with amazing lightness, agility and virtuosity, fast, with blazing runs across the keyboard! An enthralling “last dance”!

Encore 2 — Brahms: Hungarian Dance No.4 in F♯ minor, WoO 1/4

The second encore, the Hungarian Dance No.4 in F♯ minor, started at a slower pace, in a more earnest, slightly melancholic tone, but soon turns almost boisterous, returns to the initial theme, then has a playful middle part with a capricious theme in the right hand and wide-spanning figures in the accompaniment. The performance: a pleasure to watch and listen, but also fun (and amazement), and devoid of unnecessary exaggerations.

Both dances were excellent selections to end a very impressive (and successful), splendid recital!

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