Claire Huangci, 23, USA
Claire Huangci is a native New Yorker, hailing from Rochester. She graduated from Curtis but is currently studying at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover. For her Phase I performance in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Preliminaries, she wore a red flowing gown that was bare-shouldered, but with straps that started in the center and then made a V around her neck.
She plays with a lot of upper body movement, but it all was musically inspired and never excessive.
As the first contestant up in the competition, there was a lot of pressure on her, but you never would have guessed that. She began bravely with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101. She started it out a little on the languid side, but made a good case for a more thoughtful approach to the introduction. Once she got into the meat of the sonata, she kept forward pressure on the music and had a good grasp of the composer’s style, which is replete with contrasts. Because of sight lines, it is uncertain whether she used the una corda pedal in the second movement but it didn’t sound like it from my seat. She tended to use the other pedal, the sustaining one, more than needed. She eliminated some repeats, which was welcome and also helped her fit her program into the allotted time. She started the final fugue as a dynamic level up from the marked pianissimo, but built it nicely to the end, bringing out the independent voices.
She followed that with Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, op. 28 ("Scottish Sonata"). The opening was some absolutely beautiful playing and she followed that up with quite a lot of power where it was required. Mendelssohn hardly ever takes a breath and she did a fine job of connecting the various sections. The fast parts—and Mendelssohn really knows how to move—were crisp and clean.
Three Rachmaninov Preludes followed: Prelude in E Minor, op. 32, no. 4; Prelude in G Major, op. 32, no. 5; and Prelude in F Minor, op. 32, no. 6. They made a nice set with a more pensive one in the middle. She made the stylistic switch from sunny Mendelssohn to the much darker Rachmaninov. Once again, she overused the sustaining pedal, which took away from the clarity of which she is capable.
She didn’t make the stylistic change to the last piece as easily. Rachmaninov stuck with her as she played the much looser Prelude op. 40, no. 1 by Kapustin. His piece is still virtuosic and has lots of notes played very quickly, just as Rachmaninov, but his jazz-influenced language requires the performer to have more fun that the serious performance Huangci gave it.
Scipione Sangiovanni, 25, Italy
Scipione Sangiovanni is an Italian, as if you couldn’t guess from his name, which is musical to pronounce in itself. He is a graduate of the Conservatory “Tito Schipa” of Lecce and the Mendelssohn Piano Academy of Lecce, both named after great musicians. He was elegantly dressed in a sharp double-breasted tux that only crossed at the bottom button. He sat tall at the piano and was very expressive with his body language, even to the point of conducting himself when he had a hand free.
He started with Bach’s Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830, and gave it a romantic reading, full of judicially used rubato. He was not playing on Bach’s instrument, but a modern state-of-the-art piano and it showed that difference in a way that you have to think the composer would have appreciated. Maybe the old composer would have disagreed, but it made for an involving reading. His rhythmic sense was right on and he kept the playing crisp in the fast sections. He tended to lose focus when it slowed down but he picked up the tempo as the dance movements progressed.
Busoni’s Indianisches Tagebuch (Indian Diary) was something completely different from the cerebral Bach. He gave it a virtuoso performance with some odd tempos. One spot early on marked languido was a little too quick. However, the maestoso of the fourth movement was perfect. This is a work based on tunes and harmonies of American Indians that Busoni encountered in 1910, although it sounds fairly European in performance. Nevertheless, Sangiovanni did his best to bring out the folk elements.
He followed with a combination of the first two selections. He played Busoni’s grandiose take on three of the Bach chorale preludes. These are heavy-handed arrangements that tend to overpower Bach’s original intentions, even though he was thinking about the organ. His selections made a thoughtful set with the middle one being slower and more reflective. As before, he lost concentration in the slower parts, or at least didn’t communicate the line as well as in the more robust sections. However, he took a very fast tempo for the last and managed to bring out the tune on which it is based clearly throughout. It was his best playing of the session.
Beatrice Rana, 20, Italy
Italian Beatrice Rana swept onto the Bass Hall stage in a stunning gown of blue silk with gold star bursts. It was off one shoulder and worked beautifully as a pianist’s uniform. She also made a wise decision in her repertoire. She played two major works of great contrast. She opened with Clementi’s Sonata in B Minor, op. 40, no. 2 and then played Schumann’s infrequently played Études en forme de variations, op. 13. The Clementi was just excellent throughout. She played the introduction with reserve and gave it room to allow the piece to grow from it. She took the first movement’s repeats, but didn’t really say anything different when playing them. The second movement started out too loud but she played some hushed pianissimo passages later on. The last movement was fast—really fast—but she kept it sharp throughout.
The Schuman set of variations requires a pianist to join up disparate sections—some with a pause and others attacked immediately.
Tempi were right on throughout and she always had the important part of the music at the forefront. More importantly, she kept the biggest playing for the end and brought the piece to a dramatic finish. She played beautifully throughout and you could hear many comments in the audience, saying “here is a real artist.”