IN: Reviews

Miniatures Mastered with Prowess

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Beatrice Rana, 26-year-old pianist and Silver Medal Winner (as well as Audience Prize Winner) at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, thrilled a packed house at Longy’s intimate Pickman Hall Wednesday for the Celebrity Series. Throughout an astonishingly difficult program, though one she made seem easy, Rana, poised and ever in the moment, would surge from zero to 168 (and ppp to fff) in seconds. The first half comprised Chopin’s second book of 12 études, Op. 25. Ravel’s Miroirs, a “suite” of five pieces — pieces that are only linked through extra-musical connections, except perhaps for an underlying recurring motive — opened the 2nd half, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, transcribed by Guido Agosti, closed the concert.

According to Susan Halpern’s excellent program notes, in Chopin’s Op. 25, the 12 études progress. Having heard them all on many occasions by artists such as Pollini, though mostly in recordings, I felt sheepish for not being more sensitive to this. (That said, I had recognized that Murray Perahia, in his Chopin recordings, links the 3rd and 4th études of Op. 10 in a way that makes them seem inseparable.) To be fair, two things: recordings don’t work the same as live performances in conveying the passage of time, and most recordings have a neutral, long dry pause between pieces that serves to separate the pieces. And, given the difficulty of the works, even with all the monster talent out there today, we still don’t hear that many live performances of the set. When we do, they are not often elevated to the level of fascinating and entertaining musical discourse that we heard on Wednesday. For starters, Rana did not have neutral, dry pauses between her études.

I couldn’t help but wonder about her choice of playing Op. 25 over the set of Op. 10 Études, which I’m sure she has mastered as well. She could have started with a bang with Op. 10, yet, as we soon discovered, she would have plenty of opportunities for fireworks later, so why not start with something ultra Romantic, quiet and luscious, with notes and melody stretched like taffy, abundantly voiced across the keyboard (tenor here, soprano there), with big swells and much rubato, and overall coming forth with dreamy languorousness? Why not?

Then (No. 2) why not proceed directly to all those cross rhythms, hidden in sinewy, creamy lines, sotto voce? Here, Chopin has set up a sneaky rhythmic scheme of two against three against six against twelve and listening fatigue sets in after only a minute of trying to decipher this dizzying array. And so already, in Étude No. 2, Rana had introduced something startling fewer than 90 seconds in. She broke the spell of these buzzing little rhythmic bees by creating an uber-rhythm, making a melodic line out of the first note of each bar (you had to be there). The music continued to swirl and buzz about, but now both aloft and grounded, summoned to closure (sans fatigue).

Rana delivered the hoppy No. 3 (nicknamed by Alfred Cortot as the “Horseman”) with a rich sound, joy and affirmation, bright and buoyant, like bouncing on water.

Bouncing gave way to jerkiness in No. 4, leading to a more spasmodic No. 5 (nicknamed the “Wrong Note” by Cortot), with a delicate, almost drunken sounding middle section that swelled and sang. (Note: Chopin himself did not nickname any of his études.)

No. 6, “Thirds” was a revelation. Where nearly every pianist makes the focus of the work the thirds, Rana treated them as decoration and background. Of course! We can now call the étude “Sublimation of the Thirds.”  No easy thing to do, but with so many tools at her disposal, Rana always rose above the technical fray to apply a probing musical intellect, making us realize that the more you differentiate the character of each piece, the more you bind them all together.

In the “Cello” étude, No. 7, Rana’s unabashed separation of timing in playing melodies in both hands sounded just plain old school. Lovely. The “Sixths” in No. 8 were far from sublimated, charming and full of Rana’s micro-swells and crescendos, one moment in sunlight, the next in shadow, then back in light.

Why is No. 9 nicknamed “Butterfly”? Maybe it’s an 8-foot butterfly with shiny metal wings, one that takes great pleasure in bouncing around on a pogo stick rather than flying, around the interior of a saloon, that is, not outdoors. That makes sense.

The exterior sections of “Octaves” étude, No. 10, can have a brutal effect on the listener, with relentless hammering, sounding like, well, an étude, an exercise. In Rana’s hands, this étude was something altogether different, if not just as brutal. The octaves were thrown off kilter, like something bouncing around inside a huge ball, making it careen in all directions, smashing into things. The middle section was lovely, tender, and almost pleading (but not really, more like teasing pleading). The return of the octaves almost tore the piece apart. Intentional mayhem.

Of course, No. 11, “Winter Wind,” blew by big, brilliant, and terrifying. Rana went directly into No. 12, the “Ocean” étude without pause. It was fast, at times fading to almost nothingness, before huge swells building to a flood of notes to climax. Rana’s fearless and assertive, colorful, and rich, and always searching playing rewarded us with an extremely satisfying and enlightening journey through the 2nd book of études.

Beatrice Rana (Marie-Staggat photo)

The five pieces constituting Ravel’s Miroirs:

Noctuelles (Nocturnal moths)
Oiseaux tristes (Sad birds)
Une barque sur l’océan (A boat on the ocean)
Alborada del gracioso (The clown’s morning)
La vallée des cloches (The valley of the bells)

The collection “consists of five fleeting, dream-like images, each dedicated to one of [the composer’s] literary and musical friends.” (Halpern)

With Noctuelles Rana added to her tonal vocabulary for the evening. It was dry, brittle, and sharp, and so light in places as to seem inaudible (moths are very light creatures after all), with a melodic two note “motif” inserted like a mantra. Exquisite sounding, with more of her trademark micro crescendo “bursts” of sound and energy.

Oiseaux Tristes was just that, with sounds seeming to emanate from different sources, so many tonal (and rhythmic) layers, with another two-note ringing “motif” centering the piece.

I suppose the image and “program” of a boat moving through waves on a turbulent ocean assuages some of the feeling that this piece, Une barque sur l’océan, seems to this listener to be a compositional mess. Rana’s opening was beautiful, and her many scales and arpeggios were washboard dry, brave and exposed playing. But I blame Ravel for all of the boring and meandering tremolos (which should only be used concerto reductions for the piano, if even then, if you ask me).

So the Alborada arrived as a breath of fresh air, firmly and rhythmically grounded, at least for a moment. Do we listen to this piece in two, or in three? Both! In the alternating rhythms in two and three, Rana clearly enjoyed the bouncing, dancing element, not afraid to be thunky in places. Could she maintain this pace, though, we all asked silently? Why yes, even when all those repeated notes entered the mix.  (I wish the reviewer section had been on the left side of the hall, instead of back right. It would have been fun to watch her play this piece.)

She delivered the Spanish recitative center to the piece with machismo, balanced with brilliant adornment. Huge spikes in sound ultimately rose to a culminating grand flourish.

La vallée des cloches did not suffer from prettiness; it expressed mournful gorgeousness.

Agosti’s version of Stravinksy’s Firebird starts near the end of the work, with a huge bang. Danse Infernale is followed by the Berceuse (lullaby), then the fantastic finale.  It is likely more difficult to play than Stravinsky’s own abbreviated version of his Petrouchka. It’s certainly of a different order, more like a Busoni transcription of Bach. All in a day’s work (or play) for Rana. Her infernal, and orgasmic, Danse gushed out as a brittle, powerful, thumpy, pounding, tour-de-force. So much big sound, but with the mischief overlay of the sound of tiny faeries.

Did we miss the mournful bassoon of the orchestral lullaby? Not so much. Rana’s keyboard voicing (here and throughout the performance) projected a lush, lyrical melodic line, leading to stillness, and the introduction (pardon the oxymoron) to the finale, which built towards the amazing brass-and-timpani-and-more-reduced-to-one-piano fanfare, and a HUGE coda. Wow!

Chopin’s Prelude No.13 in F-Sharp Major follow the fanfare as a lovely cantabile encore. Then, to end the evening, the Prelude No. 16 in B-flat Minor, “Presto con fuoco,” an insane rock and roller coaster ride over a three-note bass motif on steroids. WOW!

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.

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  1. An astonishing recital, not only for this 26 year old Italian pianist’s transcendent technique, but for her bold poetic power and startling gravitas. Of all her unique and memorable performances, Miroirs took me the farthest, with Oiseaux tristes a miracle of spacious, dreamy languor traversed by plaintive birdsong. Like Jim McDonald in his terrific account, it seemed to me as if the bird calls were issuing from different parts of the forest. Une barque was truly scintillating and as restless as l’océan, while the Alborada danced vibrantly, at times seeming to near violence and frenzy but ever in control. As for the Firebird, also a Debut Series selection by Daniil Trifonov back in 2012, she gave an extraordinary account, even surpassing his in color, excitement (her tempos were unbelievably fast at times yet didn’t exactly felt rushed – I have no idea how this could have been!), and emotional weight. Though her comportment on the bench is minimalist – no facial or arm gestures, no wasted energy – her playing rose at times to such grandeur as to dwarf little Pickman Hall, and to ask as much from its sparkling new Steinway as a pianist can. Furthermore, her cool, concentrated demeanor almost seemed at odds with her wildly passionate, Romantic approach to these pieces, especially in the Chopin Études, where the rubato and taffy-pulling were at times almost too much to bear…but not quite. I can’t wait to hear Beatrice Rana again, in solo recital and with more great orchestras including the BSO. Her debut here on Wednesday evening put more than one of my musical acquaintances in mind of the young Martha Argerich, although my sense is that this young genius is – like Martha – sui generis.

    Comment by nimitta — March 2, 2019 at 5:08 pm

  2. It is always a little surprising that a pair of human hands can make a piano more than a push-button, one-key-makes-one-note machine; when a really gifted pianist demonstrates that the instrument is capable of lyricism, of subtle phrasing, of a true singing voice, it always seems a bit of a miracle. But in some hands it is more than a bit; some pianists cam bring you into an impossible world, where the varieties of sound are endless. During the Ravel, especially the Oiseaux Tristes, we seemed to be exploring a previously-undiscovered sound-realm. Sometimes it seemed like our blessed guide was saying, “let’s see what this does. Oh! Let’s try it again!” I know she was playing the notes that Ravel wrote, but it seemed like they were more individual, more interesting, than when other people play them.
    in the Études I frequently heard things I hadn’t noticed before, in particular how many voices were conversing. Her control over dynamics seems to extend to the individual notes of chords, so she can keep the voices clear, and make them rise and fall independently of each other, even in chordal passages.
    I’ve tended to think that the sequencing of études in Opus 25 is a bit unbalanced towards the finish, ending with three big stormy works without much contrast between them. Rana’s conception, however, made this seem like a meaningful progression of large passionate moods, related but by no means identical. The “Winter Wind” was fiery and dramatic, but the C minor was more than that; it was vast, filled with careless, inconstant power, never stable, with no point of rest. The A minor was thrilling, but the C minor was awe-inspiring.
    I agree with nimitta that she is a genius, and suis generis, and doesn’t need comparison with anyone, not even the also-blessed Martha. It doesn’t seem like quite the right comparison, anyway; Rana is fiery, and dramatic, but she seems to tightly focused, as well, perhaps a little like another Italian genius, Pollini. Perhaps the best demonstration of how original she is lies in a comparison of her performance Wednesday night with the best of her recordings so far (I have all of them – I was into Beatrice Rana before it was cool), which is not something from the standard virtuoso contest-winner repertoire, but an absolutely sublime version of the Goldberg Variations. I got it when it came out a couple of years ago, and it quickly became my favorite version since Murray Perahia’s. I still listen to it regularly. I recommend that others do the same.

    Comment by SamW — March 3, 2019 at 5:35 pm

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