Claire Huangci’s Conceptually Fascinating Scarlatti

Review by: John Greene


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

After briefly explaining how her subconscious motivation, combined with an educational background that placed a significant emphasis on Baroque music, led her to Scarlatti, pianist Claire Huangci arrives at the same conclusion many other pianists before her (especially non-Baroque specialists) have come to realize: Scarlatti’s music is simply “fun to play”! Also like Huangci, performers exploring Scarlatti’s keyboard works have discovered a particular wealth of ideas in these sonatas–an abundance of expressive opportunities and versatility so advanced for their time that they often transcend Baroque convention and stylistically anticipate the Classical and Romantic eras.

Huangci clearly understands this potential, offering here a conceptually unique program: after studying all of Scarlatti’s 555 sonatas, she often compellingly broadens the scope in which we’re usually accustomed to hearing them. For instance, on the first CD she groups selections as if they represent suite movements (i.e., preludes, allemandes, courantes, and so on) in three imagined, full-length, formal Baroque suites. On the second CD she instead groups mostly sets of three sonatas to form a typical (fast-slow-fast) three-movement Classical sonata.

In this context, throughout the program Huangci is wholly successful. In her opening Suite in G major, after juxtaposing K.13, K.124, and K.125 (three of Scarlatti’s swiftest, more rhythmically intricate sonatas that complement one another extraordinarily well) she counters the excitement with a much slower, elegant rendering of K.144, followed by a spright, animated treatment of K.454, before concluding the “Suite” with the two brisk K.470 and K.284 Allegros. The Suite in G minor and Suite in D major are just as well-conceived and thoughtfully constructed.

The six sonatas featured on the second disc fare just as well. Here Huangci’s conceptions are more classically forward-looking, in that she not only varies the central- and outer-movement keys within the sonatas (all of the movements in each suite are in the same key), she often downplays the dance element inherent in Baroque style. Her articulation and pacing here is noticeably more linear, as is the way each sonata movement is treated with a more advanced integrity unto itself.

Huangci’s lucid, dreamy performance of the inner movement (K.213) of the F major sonata contrasts remarkably well with the much more dynamic, measured movements (K518 and K.6) that bookend it. Likewise, after a spirited performance of the opening first-movement Allegro march (K. 443), followed by a pensive, introspectively lyrical Andante e cantabile (K. 208), her fierce performance of the final-movement Presto (K.29) of the D major sonata sounds as if it anticipates the grandeur of a Beethoven finale.

As mentioned earlier, many pianists have previously been inspired by Scarlatti’s brilliance, and there’s certainly no shortage of excellent recitals on disc. Huangci, for the most part, ranks remarkably well, given the competition. Her performances of K.35 and K.322 are just as buoyant and elegantly phrased as Clara Haskill’s legendary Westminster interpretations. At times I slightly prefer the way Christian Zacharias (EMI) more cleverly varies the momentum (compare K.322 and K.296, for instance), but otherwise Huangci is every bit his match. She’s also just as witty and imaginative as Pletnev (Virgin). The only instance where I felt Huangci’s performance was significantly sub-par may have had to do with her choice to somewhat downplay K.146 as the third movement of her Sonata in G major. Anyone familiar with Horowitz’s dashing, virtuosic, all-but-revolutionary rendering (Sony Classical) will surely miss the power he brings to this magnificent piece.

The sound is fine, well detailed with ample clarity, though the piano has a less convincing sense of weight and presence than we usually hear in today’s recordings featuring a modern instrument. Huangci’s notes are insightful, and often humorously anecdotal. Recommended.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: See review

    Keyboard Sonatas K. 6, 8, 13, 29, 31, 32, 35, 61, 76, 108, 124, 125, 135, 140, 144, 146, 175, 206, 208, 213, 260, 284, 278, 296, 322, 397, 427, 435, 443, 450, 454, 476, 490, 491, 513, & 518
  • Claire Huangci (piano)

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