Claire Huangci, a pianist of delicate touch and agile fingers, presented an all-Chopin program for the Steinway Series of concerts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Sunday afternoon.
The young American pianist clearly has a handle on the wan, tubercular side of Chopin. Her bel canto flourishes in two sets of Nocturnes, Op. 9 and Op. 27, whispered by like gossamer threads. The prevailing soft dynamics rewarded close listening, with many tiny details given pale highlights. Still, with so many famous, overplayed pieces on offer, the effect edged toward soporific.
One yearned at times for more of Chopin as boundary-shattering revolutionary. There was certainly nothing timid about Huangci’s fast tempos, blazingly rapid in the challenging portions of the Ballade in G Minor. The hectic pacing, in fact, left little time to savor the accomplishment, which was astonishing but lacking the theatrical sense to create and release tension.
The Preludes, Op. 28, showed off more of the same strengths and weaknesses: the spidery left-hand runs of No. 3, a clearly delineated melody over a torrent of notes in No. 8, devilish impetuosity in No. 12. A complete performance of the set requires a pianist to come up with something quite different in the simplest pieces, often more difficult to achieve than the broader technical challenges.
Huangci labored to make each note different from the next in the miniature preludes such as No. 7, but the overall effect was often too plain. She was on stronger footing in more virtuosic pieces, such as her encore, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2.
(Note: The museum is suspending the Steinway Series until May 2019, while it focuses on other programs.)