Pianist Claire Huangci, winner of the Geza Anda Competition 2018, just played in New York celebrating the launch of her new Rachmaninoff Preludes album on Berlin Classics. Like her complete Chopin Nocturnes album before that – for the same label – the complete Rachmaninoff 24 Preludes has been received with great acclaim internationally. Piano Street asked the ever touring pianist a few questions about her latest release.
Patrick Jovell: Claire, is it a coincidence that you manage to get such overwhelming response on two albums containing complete works in a compositional genre by two immensely popular piano composers? The Chopin Nocturnes ranges from Op. 9 to Op. 72 and the Rachmaninoff’s Preludes Op. 3 to 32. The musical life span you have to grasp as an interpreter must be enormous and very challenging?
Claire Huangci: That’s exactly the reason I record these great ‘cycles’ of works. For me, deciding on what to record is completely different from deciding on a concert program. I really want to be able to tell a story, give a detailed impression on my take of a composer or a particular theme and the best way to do that is follow their compositional evolution through a specific genre. It is a challenge but I find it immensely rewarding!
PJ: Can you tell us about the preparation process for the Rachmaninoff Preludes recording? What happens during such a journey?
CH: It’s basically immersion therapy; in the weeks-months prior to the recording, i found myself listening to Rachmaninoff constantly-all but the preludes. I was glad to discover motifs from his concertos, symphonies, hidden away in the preludes. It was about understanding his compositions on a grander scale, seeing how his style evolved. Something else I always do is try to understand the life of a composer and in this case, I found a great book, called Rachmaninoff’s recollections told to Oskar von Riemann. This is basically an autobiography and it showed me a new side of Rachmaninoff as a person that would greatly influence all my future interpretations. From the purely technical side, playing the preludes takes immense stamina; playing them at least once through each day was a challenge in itself. After the recording, I couldn’t feel my arms for a week (laughs).
PJ: Many know you as a creative and versatile Chopin player and you are used to different concert assignments everywhere you go, but we all know that Rachmaninoff had very big hands. How do you deal with this technical reality in his music?
CH: This was a particularly difficult challenge… Rachmaninoff’s span was almost twice mine! But he was also a very pianistic composer and his music allows room for a lot of flexibility in terms of sharing things between the hands, re-aligning and rolling larger chords. I had to really get creative to ensure that I played all the notes!
PJ: So, in your opinion, which are the fundamental differences between Op. 23 and Op. 32?
CH: I believe that the two sets of preludes express the best of Rachmaninoff’s compositional styles. While op. 23 is a ‘hit parade’ with lush melodies and swooning harmonic changes, op. 32 is full of daring experimentation. Rachmaninoff began to make first steps into ‘modernizing’ his music as well as making forays in the baroque direction and with Sicilian rhythms. Both sets are unique and together, they show just how versatile a composer Rachmaninoff was.
PJ: Rachmaninoff’s audiences called him ”C-sharp minor” and his farewell composition before leaving Russia was a prelude in D minor (not published until 1973). His contemporaries wrote preludes everywhere – and not only in sets of 24. What makes this musical form so attractive for composers in this era?
CH: The Prelude is a mysterious form, there’s no clear reference for what is a prelude exactly. I think this freedom is what appealed to composers. The idea of documenting a certain mood or atmosphere in a short form, is certainly easier and perhaps even more spontaneous and personal than other forms. When one writes a diary entry, it can be a sentence, or a thought that stimulates. Sometimes, brevity is beauty!
PJ: Like many a noteworthy pianist you were trained at Curtis Institute and with the great Gary Graffman. After that you went to Hannover. How has this ”German connection” affected you as a pianist and musician?
CH: For me, once I moved to Germany, I discovered my own personal voice in music. A lot of this has to do with being independent, moving to a place on your own and forming your own circle of friends. I found that this new and sudden freedom also spurred me on to reveal new musical interests and curiosity in many other genres in addition to just piano music. Living in a country where there is such a rich history of composers and having the chance to visit cities where they lived really changed my perspective. I went from being the ultimate lover of piano transcriptions and other virtuosic masterpieces to favoring Schubert, Bach and Mozart more than any other. This change came through living in Germany; finding my own peace with pace. I’m still living mostly in Germany today, between Hannover and Philadelphia and can’t ask for a better mix of the best of both worlds.
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