Holding her Celebrity Series audience rapt, pianist Beatrice Rana treated Jordan Hall to singular Debussy, Bach, and Beethoven. Her entrance drew more than a few gasps, as she glided on stage in an iridescent black gown with an hourglass silhouette and a unique embroidered back reminiscent of a swan’s wings.
In the seven interlinked keyboard miniatures constituting Bach’s French Suite No.2, BMV 813, employing artful pedal changes— sometimes fluttering, sometimes funneling— Rana sketched a series of highly stylized dance scenes. Set in the home key of C minor, the suite consists of an elegant Allemande in binary form, a nimble Courante, a gentle Sarabande, an Air, an elegantly wrought pair of Minuets, and a butterfly-light Gigue (jig) that was perhaps more curious than joyful.
Rana’s refined yet unpretentious approach to these dance miniatures offered a refreshing change from the many proficient takes on this work that exhibit tempo but no heartbeat, intelligence but no humor. The warmth of her tone, partnered with the elastic energy of her counterpoint, recalled the human origins of dance in continuous movement and the body. Too often Bach is treated like a musical chessboard, a lonely intellectual game. Beatrice shows how the music found in these suites can also be a colorful dance floor.
After a pause, as though appreciating a beautiful gift, Rana unwrapped Debussy’s Pour le piano. Composed in the period 1895-1901 after a hiatus writing for opera and orchestra (including the orchestral Nocturnes and Pelléas et Mélisande), Pour le piano is a treasure trove of glissandi, celestial perpetual-motion effects, and gossamer trills. In these highly experimental and individualistic tone poems, Debussy tests the boundaries of keyboard writing and of his own style: behind him are such confections as the Deux Arabesques and the Rêverie, and ahead are Images, Estampes, L’Isle Joyeux, the Préludes, and the Études.
Rana took listeners on a joyride through different tonal and pianistic possibilities, a journey that started with the extroverted Prélude.The swirling rhythms came brilliantly to life: on display too were diamond-like ornamentation and layering, evaporating whole-tone scales, hypnotic pedal points, and mellifluous Javanese gongs.
In the Sarabande, Rana took on a more meditative and aloof aspect, seemingly lost in the composer’s luminous and misty landscapes. Debussy remarked that this section should be “rather like an old portrait in the Louvre,” a velvety nostalgia that Rana captured well. The third and last movement, a Toccata, arrived in bright energetic swirls, which through a series of insouciant turns and Scarlatti-like runs shifted into a disarmingly poignant melody.
Following a brief intermission, Rana plunged into the fortissimi of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. Acerbic, convex, unsightly, and neurotic, this challenging and grotesque sonata — completed in 1818, when the master was stone deaf — registered as a brusque antipode to Debussy’s sweet digressions. While Rana’s delivery of the Allegro and Scherzo were powerful, in the Adagio Sostenuto she exhibited a level of restraint that I have never witnessed in this sonata, bringing out the inexorable and the terrifying via time-defying extremes of tempo and dynamics. In this section, which has been described as a “mausoleum of collective suffering,” Rana’s increasingly fine pianissimi and carefully calibrated ritardando evoked frost creeping over a windowpane. Time stood still as the anxieties and morbid fantasies of the exposition metastasized into a haunted silence, a space of negative capability sustained by Rana’s restraint and vulnerable pathos. People were seen weeping.
The finale arrived almost secretly, as a seamless continuation of the Adagio. Some members of the audience may not have realized that a transition between movements had occurred. Rana cast the exploratory opening octaves like tentative beams of light, a gradual awakening and reckoning that culminated in the fury and conceptual density of the fugue. Here Rana’s athletistry and contrapuntal intelligence both came to the battlefield, rising triumphantly to meet Beethoven’s intense technical and artistic demands.
There was an audible “wow” before the applause, which Rana rewarded with a delicate rendition of “The Swan” by Saint-Saëns/Godowksy. Coaxed back to the stage seven times, she provided two additional encores: a fleeting and witty Debussy étude, (No. 6, pour les huit doigts (eight fingers)), and a smoky gem from Scriabin’s op. 11 Preludes (No.11 in B). Overall, a sparkling set of performances by a subtle and passionate artist.