In the studio with Rachmaninov

Claire Huangci

„I get very nervous when I am making records (…) when the stage is set for the final recording and I realise that this will remain for good, my hands get tense.“ No, this isn’t Claire Huangci, who recently recorded Sergei Rachmaninov’s complete piano preludes for Berlin Classics, but rather the Russian composer himself who admitted to nerves. One of the greatest pianists of his time, Rachmaninov made landmark recordings of both his own works and music by other composers, but always had a certain mistrust of sound recordings.Nearly a hundred years later, committing any works to disc still presents its own exciting challenges. This is especially true in the case of the preludes, which are not only technically difficult, but since many of the individual works are relatively unknown, the whole cycle has been rarely recorded in its entirety. Claire Huangci confirms this: “There are a couple of favourites which everybody knows, and everybody plays. These few preludes, which Rachmaninov recorded himself, overshadow the rest of the cycle. I find this a great pity – for me, there isn’t a single prelude that is a little sub-par. Every piece is simply so unique and a small masterpiece in its own right.”

Rachmaninov’s cycle was therefore a natural choice for her fourth recording, which will be released in summer 2018. “I always choose my repertoire very carefully,” she explains. “Normally they are pieces that I haven’t played many times in concert, and that I have a very personal interest in. I want to put my own stamp on the music, something I can say different from the others. I am very aware of how big the CD market is right now for piano repertoire. Everything has already been recorded numerous times, so you have to be really careful to not release a CD that is just one of thousands of recordings on the market.”

So far, this strategy seems to have worked well for the pianist. Following her debut CD featuring solo works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, she recorded a selection of Scarlatti’s sonatas in 2015. Here, she illustrated Scarlatti’s transitional role in music history by mixing sonatas which are in Baroque suite form with others which look ahead to the classical sonata. This musical concept was a great success, receiving the German Record Critics’ Award and selected as “Editor’s Choice” by Gramophone magazine. Her 2017 recording of the Chopin Nocturnes was also highly praised, with the Süddeutsche Zeitung writing; “Do we need another recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes? Not really! But when one hears this brand new double-CD from Claire Huangci, the answer is yes!”

However, finding a formula for success isn’t so simple, and studio sessions always present new challenges: “recording the Chopin Nocturnes was very exhausting, but in a completely different way to the Preludes,” comments the pianist. “The Nocturnes are not really physically demanding, but the challenge is rather finding the perfect mood and perfect sound for each piece. You have to record everything in very long takes because in a slow piece, every small tempo change is noticeable.”

Chopin’s music has been with the pianist for a long time – as a young artist she won 1st Prize at the International Chopin Competition in Darmstadt in 2009 and the top award at the Chopin Competition in Miami in 2010 – but it took a while until she mastered Rachmaninov’s music. “The Preludes were somehow too far away. I couldn’t play them for a long time. I’ve already played all the Chopin Etudes and the Liszt Etudes – both of them present special challenges of course, none of them are easy – but to make Rachmaninov’s music work for me was the biggest physical challenge that I’ve encountered” – logistically speaking, the pieces pose particular problems for the small-framed pianist. “Rachmaninov had a huge hand-span – his hands could reach the interval of a 14th, which is incredible. I have extremely small hands for a pianist, so although he doesn’t go beyond a normal hand-span in his writing for piano, I had to find my own way of placing my hands, playing notes with different hands. I wouldn’t find it acceptable to leave out or replace notes.”

As well as getting to grips with the pieces’ technical challenges, the pianist immersed herself in Rachmaninov’s musical world whilst developing her interpretation. “I listened to quite a few recordings, but I tried to keep my distance whilst I was in the process of learning the music, because you don’t want your own interpretation to become too influenced. I would say that there are a handful of very good reference recordings of Rachmaninov’s music, most of them by Russian pianists, including the composer himself. These are benchmarks; I listened to them, appreciated different parts and came up with my own interpretation.” However, she doesn’t consciously try and make her interpretations stand out from others: “I don’t have to try and be different and new. Rather, I know my interpretations will be quite different just because of my background and heritage and the fact that I’m not Russian.”

Reading Rachmaninov’s memoirs, written by the musicologist Oskar von Riesemann based on his conversations with the composer, also helped her understand his musical world. But above all, it was her experience playing and listening to other works by Rachmaninov which oriented her interpretations. “I’ve now played all of his piano concertos, and whilst I haven’t performed his sonatas in concert, I have learned quite a few of his Etudes Tableaux and other short pieces, as well as having sight-read his two piano suites with some friends of mine. So I have quite a good knowledge of his other pieces for piano as well as his orchestral works,” she says, explaining that “Rachmaninov associated different moods and sound textures with every single key. When you know his works, you notice that when he composes in D minor or B minor, for example, he always conjures up this certain atmosphere, which is very interesting.”

With this new CD in the bag, Claire Huangci hopes she can play Rachmaninov’s solo piano works more often in concert – she gave a preview of this in July at a solo recital at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, where she integrated a selection of the Preludes into her programme. Her next CD project will go in a completely different direction: in January 2019 she will record a chamber music CD. “When I was young I always believed that to be a successful pianist meant playing solo all the time. I very quickly realised how wrong I was,” she explains. “When I came to Germany, I had the opportunity to meet young musicians my age, forge friendships with them and play together for fun. Then I realised how playing together, experimenting, discovering and developing interpretations together can change your perspective.”

“I am someone who likes to keep things fresh, so I love to keep playing different repertoire,” continues the pianist, who has just won 1st Prize at the Concours Géza Anda. Following this success, she is making a series of summer appearances – both chamber music performances and solo recitals – and will return to perform with orchestras again at the beginning of the new season. Although she has developed a great deal as a musician in the meantime, she is still profiting from her old life as a “child prodigy”: “I learned a lot of repertoire when I was quite young, so when I have to do something new, at least I have a head start.”