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Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 17 (1882-1889) [33:21]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1, in E minor, Op. 11 [42:10]
Claire Huangci (piano), Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Shiyeon Sung
rec. 2018, Emmerich-Smola-Saal SWR Studio Kaiserlautern, Germany
BERLIN CLASSICS 0301096BC [75:31]

American Claire Huangci (b. 1990) is a highly gifted pianist, easily among the finest of her generation. I have followed her career from her ill-fated 2013 Cliburn Competition appearance to her recent recording and concert successes across the globe, as well as other competition victories, which include First Prize and Mozart Prize at the 2018 Géza Anda Competition. Actually, I was aware of her talent before the Cliburn, having seen some of her performances on YouTube, which were all impressive. I watched much of the 2013 Cliburn Competition via the site’s streaming service and can only say it is a mystery she did not make the finals. Her elimination in the previous round might be used as further evidence by competition skeptics that judgment processes in such events are often far from ideal. True, she was up against unusually strong competitors that year with Vadym Kholodenko the eventual winner, and Beatrice Rana the Silver Medalist, both of whom have achieved great success in the aftermath. That said, there was still room for Huangci to compete with them. Anyway, here is yet another fine recording to join her Scarlatti sonatas double-CD set and her disc of Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky transcriptions, both on Berlin Classics. She's also made recordings of Rachmaninov and Chopin works for this same label.

Her choice of repertory is interesting for this new CD, pairing concertos by two Polish composers, the warhorse Chopin First and the rarely heard Paderewski A minor. Album note writer Claire Jackson suggests similarities between the two works, and while there are some, stylistically they are quite different: the later piece is lushly romantic whereas the Chopin is an early Romantic work that retains much from Classical models. The Paderewski leads off, and for those unfamiliar with the work, I can say this is one of those big post-Romantic concertos full of grand gestures, glorious climaxes, gorgeous if not necessarily memorable themes, and colorful, glittering orchestration. It expresses a world of romance, happiness and triumphant endings—and a world of virtuosity, with much challenging and brilliant piano writing. There will be listeners who will either love it or hate it. For those who found the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto series of great interest, this work will have considerable appeal, especially if they missed Piers Lane’s performance of it in that undertaking.

The work is cast in three movements. The first opens with a vigorous Allegro section having at times a folk-like character. There is some development of material before a contrasting, slower lyrical theme is presented. In the lively development section Paderewski storms the heights, the piano writing brilliant and imaginative and the orchestration prismatic and assured. A challenging cadenza comes near the end and there follows a lovely Romanza movement (Andante) of great romantic warmth and beauty that features a dramatic if slightly saccharine climax. The finale (Allegro molto vivace) begins with a vigorous, quite lively, Polish folk-inspired main theme that soon yields to a slower grandiose theme on brass, having a bit of the character of the big brass theme in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The main theme dominates as the movement develops, though the brass theme comes back near the end in a somewhat stately though slightly bombast-tinged climactic episode. A lively, chipper coda ends the piece in grand style.

Claire Huangci plays this difficult concerto with such facile technique as to make the listener believe it is of little challenge to her. That may be the case, so dependable and complete are her keyboard skills. She also displays a wide range of dynamics which she employs tastefully and sensitively. In all three movements she’s right on target, capturing the character of each, their brilliance and grandeur, their poetry and charm. Her tempos are moderate to slightly brisk and her phrasing of themes is always imaginative and never wayward or eccentric. South Korean conductor Shiyeon Sung, a rising star in her own right, leads the Deutsche Radio Philharmonic Orchestra with a knowing hand, extracting utterly spirited and committed playing, conveying the sense this fine ensemble is thoroughly familiar with every aspect of the score. As for the competition in this work, Fialkowska (Naxos) and Wild (RCA) are both fine alternatives, but their sound reproduction won’t match the excellent sonics of Berlin Classics here—and the Wild performance comes on a five disc set. For this concerto, go with Huangci.

The Chopin First Piano Concerto is actually his Second, and the Second his First, the numbering switch due to the order in which they were published. The E minor is perhaps the better of the two, though both have had numerous concert performances and recordings. Thus Huangci enters into competition with a host of legendary pianists, the most significant of whom is Artur Rubinstein, whose Chopin First on RCA with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski remains at the top of the heap, above Argerich (DG), Perahia (Sony) and others, many others. Here Claire Huangci is tremendously persuasive: to my ears only she rivals Rubinstein in the finale, and for that matter in the entire concerto. The ending of the work, for example, has been a measuring stick in certain ways for me when comparing a pianist to Rubinstein in this work. He got the ending right with his subtle touch, brilliant dynamics and natural feel for Chopin. Until this performance, no one else that I’ve ever heard has.

Although Huangci didn’t make the finals in the Cliburn, she’s made the finals in the Chopin First Concerto: out of two dozen or so performances or recordings in my library or that I’m familiar with, she vies for the Gold. Here, in this concerto every instance of rubato, every softening or increase in dynamics and every tempo choice sounds so natural, so integral to the music, never coming across as calculated or misjudged. Her voicing and balances between main lines and secondary ones is always seemingly perfect. This is a Chopin First to be cherished, not least because conductor Sung and the Deutsche Radio Philharmonic Orchestra turn in excellent work as well. Again, the sound is vivid and well balanced. This account of the Chopin First is not to be missed, and even if you’re not a fan of the Paderewski Concerto, you’ll have to admire Huangci’s thrilling performance of it. A splendid achievement!

Robert Cummings

Previous review: Dominy Clements



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