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Claire Huangci’s Complete Perspective: The Rachmaninoff Preludes

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.

Free Piano Score to Download and Print:

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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Read more about the recording:


Igor Levit’s Eternal Transcendence: “Life”

Igor Levit’s acclaimed album “Life” has attracted a lot of attention and its selected works have also been included in Levit’s recent recital programs worldwide. This is a profound, versatile and firm reaction to the death and loss of his best friend reflecting inner calm elaborating on an existential level.

Bach/Brahms: Chaconne in d minor, piano score

The double CD album was recorded during spring 2018 in the famed Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin, well-known for its acoustics, on an excellent new Steinway D. The choice of venue rhymes well with Levit’s chosen works which are a mix between both the spiritual and the secular. The elaboration on life take different forms but will not offer an answer – rather a human contemplation and search for the eternal. Thus, Levit’s journey of styles and moods offers a wealth of discoveries.

Every piece Igor Levit has chosen travels a spiritual path from the earthly to the hereafter. Each work questions the ultimate realities in its own way. Some picks:

No one can arrange symphonic works like Liszt did and Wagner’s “Solemn March to the Holy Grail” from “Parsifal”, is both intense and sublime – the solemn ritual of the Good Friday Music and magically performed through Levit’s calm and transparent playing. The transcription of the “Liebestod” from the same composer’s “Tristan und Isolde”, suspends time and displays the quietly luminous with extraordinary sound control.

Bach’s church melodies in the hands of omni-genius Busoni turns into a sorrowful “Fantasia”, composed as a memorial to the composer’s father.

A discovery and also a marvelous musical experience is Busoni’s seldom heard Berceuse.

The longest work, and maybe the most adventurous, is Liszt’s colossal “Fantasia and Fugue” on the Chorale “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam”, transcribed by Busoni. A true marvel of masterly piano playing and artistic spirit.

The “Ghost” Variations by Schumann from the very end of his life, leaves us with the last variation speaking of possible consolation.

Brahms’ famous arrangement of Bach’s “Chaconne” for left hand only, entices us to hold on to life in spite of any possible limitations.

Bill Evans, a jazz pianist hero among classical pianists, has a clear alignment to both Debussy and Messiaen. “Peace Piece” was created in 1958 in a recording session. Levit stays true to the repetitious original yet with solemn and strong integrity.

Frederic Rawitzki’s “A Mensch”, composed in 2012, in memory of performance artist Ben Israel and his quote: “To be a mensch! That is the answer”, distills the spiritual essence of this whole album.

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Ear-opening Explorations: Sabine Liebner plays Stockhausen’s Solo Piano Music

Sabine Liebner’s unfaltering decision to only play music to which she feels an inner affinity has led to her being primarily active as an interpreter of new music. She has premiered many works by contemporary composers and made important contributions performing and recording the music of 20th century composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman and Galina Ustvolskaya. For Liebner, music making is the solitary exploration of unknown terrain. She tries to listen to a score with no preconceptions, to discover its innate musical language. The results are often intriguing, and can sometimes even prove addictive, as in her recording of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke I-XI.

Liebner is a very sensitive sound explorer, and uses her sophisticated and hugely varied tonal range to create truly magical soundscapes. The close recording catches these nuances beautifully, rendering the piano’s resonances with impressive detail. The first eleven Klavierstücke by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen (1928—2007) are considered to be some of most important solo piano pieces by the radical post-war European composers. They belong firmly in the somewhat hard-edged and abstract avantgarde sound world of the 1950’s, which may discourage some people from listening at all. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that this album will convert quite a few, if they only give it a chance.

The beginning of Klavierstück I (sample score from Universal Edition):

A New Way of Listening

One of the most interesting decisions Liebner has made concerns Klavierstück XI: in order to show the different possibilities of this work, she has recorded it twice. The score consists of a single large page with 19 groups or fragments, the order of which is decided during the performance. The pianist starts wherever the eye happens to fall, and ends whenever one of the groups has been played a third time. At the end of each group Stockhausen has noted the tempo, the type of touch, and the dynamics to be used in the group next chosen by the performer. In other words, while this work is very exactly notated every performance is a different, unrepeatable experience — a quality it shares with Cage’s legendary “silent” piece, 4’33’’, and Boulez’s unfinished Third Piano Sonata.

Perhaps there is no better way of experiencing the mysterious processes of this music than listening with a couple of good over-ear headphones in a dark room with absolutely no outer disturbances. After all, Stockhausen intention was not to provoke, but rather to train our mental abilities toward a new way of listening — in his own words, “to perceive vibrations and vibrational relationships, organisms, and processes in order to become more alert, intelligent, thoughtful, polyphonic, aware, and sensitive”.

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The Pleyel Piano: A Key to Genuine Chopin Sound?

Hubert Rutkowski’s new CD is a portrait not only of Chopin, but of the composer’s favourite instrument: Rutkowski plays a Pleyel piano from 1847. In his search for a genuine Chopin/Pleyel sound he has also turned to historical recordings of Raul Koczalski and Moritz Rosenthal, students of Karol Mikuli, who was in turn a student of Chopin himself.

Chopin’s own Pleyel piano from 1848

Songful and spontaneous

The album offers a well-rounded view of Chopin the lyricist, and the selection of pieces presents the whole spectrum of sound possibilities available to the Pleyel. The piano has a songful tone, but without the density and weight of a modern instrument, which allows you to hear all the different layers of sound very clearly. Rutkowski also manages to create a big sound in the G minor ballade, but in the coda it’s clear that the Pleyel is approaching the limit of what it can convey in terms of power.

In spite of the great focus on history, there is a sense of fresh spontaneity in Rutkowski’s performances. From his early-20th century role models he has picked up a special sense of freedom, and a rubato that can be surprising to modern ears, accustomed to 21st century ‘standard Chopin playing’. So, is this the only true and genuine Chopin? Well, we might want to look at different portrait pictures of Chopin to get a sense of what he really looked like. In much the same way, historically informed performances like these can certainly give us a more nuanced picture.

Chopin Ballade no 1 – Piano score to download and print:

A highly sensitive instrument

The Pleyel has a so-called single escapement — a type of action which is less flexible than modern ones, but which at the same time offers a greater feeling of touch control. Rutkowski, in his detailed liner notes, agrees with Chopin that to play legato and with a singing tone on the Pleyel “is quite a challenge for the pianist. This instrument is highly sensitive to the smallest detail […] one might get the impression of a direct contact with the strings.”

From a modern perspective one is easily tempted to view the evolution of the piano in the 19th century as the steady progress towards the modern Steinway. Of course, romantic composers didn’t see it that way. Each of the major piano makes that existed in Chopin’s time had its distinct qualities, which could be used for different musical purposes. Chopin himself used to say:

“When i feel out of sorts, I play on an Érard piano where I easily find a ready-made tone. But when I feel in good form, and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano.”

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Album content

(Click the links for piano sheet music to download and print.)

Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
Mazurka No. 2 in C Major, Op. 24
Étude No. 5 in G-Flat Major, Op. 10
Nocturne No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 48
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 66
Mazurka No. 4 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 24
Scherzo in B Minor, Op. 20
Mazurka No. 1 in B-Flat Major, Op. 7
Nocturne No. 1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 27
Polonaise in B-Flat Major, Op. 71
Mazurka No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 68
Waltz No. 1 in D-Flat Major, Op. 64


Chopin In a Box? Dumond Plays the Nocturnes

For anyone seeking the quintessential Chopin, his twenty-one Nocturnes are a study of the seal of compositional genius. They also define the complex and refined qualities of the composer’s unique understanding of the piano during a lifetime. This music is born of silence and improvisation and allowed Chopin to combine the finest elements of his melodic, harmonic and dramatic world. The element of loneliness, the inner secret monologue, seems to have stimulated the most authentic and inimitable inspiration of the Polish composer.

Piano Sheet Music: Chopin Nocturne in C Minor

A noted and awarded international Chopin interpreter, French pianist François Dumont is an excellent musician who can make the rich elements and contrasts come to life, balancing cantabiles with the dramatic outbursts in a stylistically fine and controlled way. With Dumont’s clear understanding of simplicity and complexity this AVEA album (2017) will offer an appealing and intriguing experience for any listener.

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The Nocturne, originally an intimate salon piece was in Chopin’s hands turned into a masterful landscape, sometimes extremely dramatic, with poignant intensity.

We can also call them opera arias for the piano as their delicate, ornamented melodies are underpinned by beautifully balanced accompaniments. The Nocturnes share, besides their title and an obsession with a cantabile line (a Chopin trademark) the relatively short duration and their very moderate tempo. Yet the moods of these works are widely divergent. This is also illustrated by a great variety of tonalities: no less than sixteen different tonalities, with almost the same proportion of major and minor keys.


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