Pianist Claire Huangci in Conversation with Stan Metzger

Claire Huangci Photo (c)Maike Helbig
Claire Huangci
Photo (c)Maike Helbig

Pianist Claire Huangci was brought to my attention by Geoffrey Newman, whose review of her concert in Vancouver had this to say about her performance of Xian Xinghai’s The Yellow River Piano Concerto: “The 24-year-old pianist Claire Huangci, who often performs to acclaim in Germany these days, tore into it like a tiger. It would be difficult to think of many pianists with this type of agility and rhythmic accuracy, and she approached the work with great commitment and enthusiasm. I did not get tired of this. The second movement conjured up the fragrances of Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain, while also inspiring a carefree, happy feeling. The last movement was a virtuoso tour de force with plenty of surge and visceral excitement.”

Knowing that I was more than a little interested in Domenico Scarlatti, he suggested I might be interested in her soon-to-be-released double CD album of Scarlatti. I downloaded the music on its release date and was struck by the unusual grouping of pieces. Something very interesting was going on here.

Claire Huangci followed the path of a child prodigy, a highlight being a private concert she gave to President Clinton at the age of 10. Awards from major competitions followed:

Youngest Recipient and Second Prize at the International ARD competition; First Prize at the 2009 International Chopin Competition in Darmstadt, Germany; and First and Special Prize at the 2010 International Chopin Competition in Miami. She has performed in Carnegie Hall, in Tonhalle, Zurich, at the Verbier Festival and the Menuhin Festival. In 2014, she premiered ISIS, a piano concerto dedicated to her by composer Cord Meijering.

After several attempts to meet in person, we conducted this interview over the phone. I caught her as she got back from a US concert tour to her current home in Hanover.

SM What led you as a child to the piano?

CH My parents bought a piano that was halfway between a birthday present for me and a housewarming present for our new home. No one had any idea that this would be anything more than a little hobby for my sister and me. I was 7 years old when I started playing, and it was only after I got into the Curtis Institute of Music that I started thinking maybe this is a career line, something I want to spend more time on than a hobby.

Were your parents interested in music and did they put any pressure on you to play?

No, neither of them played any music. They are both scientists. They didn’t really have any musical background. They are from Beijing, you know, and came before the cultural revolution, and they never heard classical music until they got to America. This is really interesting. I don’t think there is anyone that I can say I got my musical talent from. I wasn’t following in the footsteps of anyone. It just happened pretty naturally.

It’s strange when that happens. Where did this come from? As a teenager interested in classical music, I felt at times like a freak.

Yes, yes, I get it. That’s something I think too.

Did you play any other instruments?

Well, no. When I was seven, a lot of students in my elementary school were starting with the violin or joining the band and orchestra. My sister and I, we both started with the piano, and I remember thinking it’s so lonely because everyone else could study their instrument with a group of kids and I had to be alone. I wasn’t so keen on that.

I never thought about that. Were your early experiences strictly classical?

They were all classical. I was lucky enough to have  a really good teacher – she was Swiss – from the beginning. I started studying in Philadelphia in a local music school settlement which is just for beginners of all ages. My teacher taught me in a very traditional way. I studied Mozart, Haydn, very early Beethoven, Bach, a lot of Bach, and I think it was a really good foundation that she gave me.

In your video interview on YouTube you said that you were attracted to Scarlatti’s sonatas, but were somewhat afraid of them, and that they were fragile yet difficult. Having run through them all, do you still feel the same way?

I started studying Scarlatti for the first time when I was older, so my first experiences with him were when I was maybe 13 or 14 and had already entered Curtis. And I’m thinking, while I was happy to play something other than Bach because I played Bach always, every week, Scarlatti required such precision that you really couldn’t fall short. Any little imperfection in terms of rhythm or sound could be heard and I noticed that from a young age. I remember thinking to myself that this was a composer that I didn’t feel comfortable performing or really playing in general. It was a kind of challenge, but as the years went on I think that only a few times did I include Scarlatti in any programs. It was when I decided to record the second album that I sat myself down and really locked myself away to work exclusively on Scarlatti for several months.

For your second CD, did you decide on who you would play or did your producers at Berlin Classics?

Originally, the second CD was to be a concerto recording, not a solo one, maybe some Mozart concertos. However, the timing was difficult for the orchestra we had in mind, and various other factors came into play. They said, “You know, if we record the orchestra CD, it won’t come out for a long time. The orchestra needs so much playing time, so maybe it’s best if you record another solo.” We were just brainstorming, and that was when my record label asked me for ideas. I suggested maybe Chopin or Schubert, and they said that might be interesting. I remember saying, randomly, Scarlatti and they thought it was a great idea. Their reaction really bolstered my thinking because I wasn’t too sure how good an idea Scarlatti was. That was March, and I recorded the album by July, so it was a very intense four months.

How long were you in the recording studio?

This was a double album and I had five days, plenty of time. I was lucky because it was in the same hall as my previous CD, and the producer and staff were the same, so I was already comfortable. Yeah, I think it went really smoothly overall. We actually finished early.

Have you listened to other performers playing Scarlatti and do you have any preferences?

I did take the time to listen to a few CDs. I wasn’t at all listening to them with reference to which sonatas I myself should record, but just to get a hearing. I remember from a young age there was one CD collection which really struck me. It was the double album of Pletnev, and I found his Scarlatti very fresh. I also knew Michelangeli’s Scarlatti. I was, you know, doing other preparation. I found the recording of Christian Zacharias very convincing, very beautiful, and also Maria Tipo. She has a fantastic CD. There are so many different ways of interpreting Scarlatti, and I listened to Horowitz too. I found out everyone had their own way, and these different methods of playing Scarlatti all seemed convincing. This is due to the versatility of Scarlatti’s works. His pieces are so full of character that you are able to interpret them in many ways.

Do you have a favorite sonata?

I can’t really pick a favorite. I enjoy most the ones I recorded, those are the ones I had a very strong impression of.

Did you ever think of playing his sonatas on harpsichord or pianoforte? And why did you chose a Yamaha piano?

I was lucky enough to have the CD sponsored in part by Yamaha. I am a Yamaha artist mostly in America, because in Europe there are not that many Yamahas available in concert. I’m not exclusively a Yamaha artist at all. But for this CD, Yamaha was a partner, and I was provided with a really fantastic CFX and a fantastic technician. If there was even a little problem, all I had to do was ask the technician who was on hand at all times. I found for this specific repertory, the Yamaha is very suitable. This piano was so clear and it had a lightness, this kind of ethereal effect, and that was exactly what I was going for in the Scarlatti. And you know, of course, you have to find a piano that matches the repertoire. It may not have been the right piano if I wanted to record some Rachmaninoff or some Brahms. For this repertoire, I don’t think I could really have asked for a better instrument.

The first modern complete Scarlatti was compiled by Alessandro Longo in 1906. He was notorious for adding phrase markings and dynamics and “correcting” harmonic oddities. He also reorganized the sonatas into suites according to tonality. How is what you did on your CD similar to or different from what Longo did? And do you support the common consensus that most of the Scarlatti sonatas (at least the last 400) were written as pairs where the keys are the same, but they complement each other through changes in tempo, meter or harmonics. Sorry it’s such a big question.

I actually came up with the idea before I knew that Longo had arranged Scarlatti’s sonatas into what he called suites as well. When I read this I said, oh wow, I didn’t know it had already been done before. But his is a very different concept. In terms of Longo’s suites, it wasn’t exactly his idea to play all of the sonatas together. I believe it was a way of categorizing the sonatas, not a performance order, and mine is more of a real program choice. I find that the suites that I made of seven or eight sonatas can really be interpreted as a full-on Baroque suite. Longo’s suites are not, I think, all in the same key either; some are in one key and transition smoothly into another. It’s really more of a format for the whole catalog. I think that in terms of Scarlatti’s pairs, there are definitely a few sonatas that you can tell should be played together, they fit so well. They are like complements. But seeing that there is no proof of Scarlatti having himself said anything or given any direction, I think we’re just given a lot of freedom. That’s why I felt really lucky to be able to do what I was doing. This is a kind of liberty that I’m not able to have with almost any other composer. It was an experiment in a way.

Tempo is always an issue. I was surprised to see that there were so many slow pieces.   90 sonatas are marked Andante or Adagio, 400 marked Allegro and Allegretto and only 70 are marked Presto or Prestissimo.  How important were the tempo markings in deciding how slow or fast you would play? 

Of course, I look for markings. In the slow pieces I will look carefully at the time, if the tempo mark is already there, along with the character. I tried my best in the CD to show the different sides of Scarlatti, to show as many as I could. I know Scarlatti is mainly known for fast, light, virtuosic sonatas, so I really wanted to bring to light his more introspective side. While he may not be characterized as a deep composer, I think he can be very cantabile, full of melody and a really beautiful singing line, and this is a something I really wanted to bring out.

There are questions about whether Scarlatti’s use of handcrossing was just to produce a theatrical effect. A number of sonatas could be played without crossing hands. How did you approach these measures? It was Charles Burney who claimed that Scarlatti stopped writing sonatas using handcrossing because his girth made it physically impossible for him to do. A nasty comment for Burney to make, and one that Kirkpatrick disputed.

I think a lot of the things that Scarlatti does are just for experiment, for having fun. I’ve heard some stories, some rumors, that are probably partially true. You know, after Bach himself saw the early writings of Scarlatti, after he saw the manuscript of Scarlatti’s published 30 sonatas, he wrote his Partita and his Goldberg Variations. Bach, who was never known to do such a thing as handcrossing, was doing a lot of it all over the place. It became a kind of fashion after this. I feel like Scarlatti wasn’t doing it so much as a technique to show off, but in a way to have fun, to make playing the piano maybe an art form not only in the music but also to look at. I find that when you play Scarlatti you are all over the keyboard. There’s more jumping around, much more than with a lot of classical composers, and in this way he was really going outside the box and exploring different compositional techniques. It’s not just cross-hand. He did so many different things. There are crazy repetitions which I’ve never heard from anyone in this era, and techniques that were later developed by many of the great virtuoso writers, people like Liszt. I’m sure they were all influenced by him, and it’s all a way to kind of cut loose and  have fun with what you’re doing.

So you really played through all 550+ sonatas?

I went to the Curtis Library, which is one of the best-stocked libraries in America, and I checked out all 11 volumes. To select the right sonatas, you have to know what you’re getting into, so I sight-read every one of them and I remember … I have to say I didn’t do the complete ones, but I sight-read through the first half of each one, and then there were some, of course, which I went back and reread. It was an extremely long process, one that I had to go through for many weeks because on one day you might feel this is a great combo, but the next day it doesn’t sound convincing. I had to back up and go through the keys again. All of my pieces are based also on tonality too, and I had to group them  ̶  a group of 50 G majors, a group of 30 C majors  ̶  and then see which matched.

It must have been difficult, since all the sonatas in their own right are gems.

Absolutely, it was very challenging.

Have you ever played him on the pianoforte or harpsichord?

Yeah, I played. I really tried. I have never done this in concert, but at that time I was trying to see, I was trying to hear the sound myself, and I felt that it was important to hear how the sonatas sounded on the piano that Scarlatti himself was composing on. Yes, I did this, of course.

Any projects for the future?

Well, I do have another project, another CD coming out, probably next year. We are going to record it in November. I can only tell you it will be comprising concertos, with a combination which I think never has been done before on CD. I’m very excited about it and think it will absolutely be a highlight of my year! By the way MusicWeb International and Seen and Heard, I follow both of these websites, and it’s a great pleasure. I will be in New York City for my CD presentation at Poisson Rouge in October this year, and when I get the date, I will definitely let you know.

Stan Metzger

1 thought on “Pianist Claire Huangci in Conversation with Stan Metzger”

  1. Happy to see and listen to her in a great concert in ATHENEU (a real Palace of Music)-Romania. She is amazing!


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