Piano Recital: Beatrice Rana
Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Ravel
Druckerei, Baden/CH, 2016-04-01
2016-10-10 — Brushed up for better readability
This recital, organized by Piano District in the Druckerei Baden (print shop in Baden/CH) could just as well have run under the title “Orpheum Concert”: Oliver Schnyder, co-initiator of the concert series “Piano District“, and himself a prime example for the successful work of the “Orpheum Foundation for Support of Young Artists” (Orpheum Stiftung zur Förderung junger Solisten), has invited the young Italian pianist Beatrice Rana (*1993 in Copertino), who also received support by that foundation, and who made her successful debut in Zurich in 2014, in the framework of the Orpheum concerts, in a concert conducted by Zubin Mehta.
The venue was sold out for this concert.
Beatrice Rana was born into a family of musicians and made her concert debut at age 9, with orchestra. For 8 years she studied with Benedetto Lupo at the Conservatorio Nino Rota in Monopoli, where she also obtained her diploma; here studies also included lessons in composition, with Marco Della Sciucca. At age 18, she started attending competitions — with success:
- International Competition in Montreal (Canada), first prize
- “Muzio Clementi” Competition in Lastra a Signa (Italy), first prize
- “Yamaha-Del Rio Young Talents Competition” in Cesenatico (Italy), first prize
- “First International Competition of the Republic of San Marino”, first prize
- “Marco Bramanti” Competition in Forte dei Marmi (Italy), first prize
- Premio delle Arti (Arts Prize) 2005 (Italy)
- The culmination of her competition career so far was the second prize (and the audience award) at the International Van Cliburn Piano Competition 2013, in Fort Worth (TX)
With these successes in her portfolio, she started an international career as concert pianist, and she has begun appearing at several festivals, so far predominantly in France. Since 2011, Beatrice Rana lives in Hannover / Germany, where she continues her studies with Arie Vardi at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien. This information is collected from her Wikipedia entry (currently available in Italian only).
In this concert, Beatrice Rana’s program spanned the time between Bach and Ravel, between baroque and impressionism:
Bach: Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826
The Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826 is part of the “Clavier-Übung, Teil I” (exercise for the keyboard, part I, consisting of six Partitas for the harpsichord or clavichord) by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). This is a collection of baroque suites, featuring the typical four suite components (the traditional dance movements Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue), complemented with an introductory movement (Praeludium, Sinfonia, Fantasia, Ouverture, Praeambulum, Toccata). Bach’s Partitas feature one or two additional dance movements (Menuet, Burlesca, Scherzo, Gavotta, Passepied, etc.), typically between the Sarabande and the Gigue. The Partita No.2 is the only one in the series where the Gigue is missing, in favor of a Capriccio:
- Sinfonia (Grave, Adagio, 4/4 — Andante — [Allegro, 3/4])
- Allemande, 2/2
- Courante, 3/2
- Sarabande, 3/4
- Rondeau, 3/8
- Capriccio, 2/4
Let me add a little digression here:
Baroque Music on the Modern Piano
One can of course not compare an interpretation on the modern piano (in this case a Steinway B-211) to one on any instrument from Bach’s time. I don’t want to elaborate on this in general terms / in full detail here. I have previously expressed my reservations towards playing baroque (let alone older) music on a modern concert grand; let me just state that—as also indicated below—the means of expression on a modern piano are so much different from those on, say, a harpsichord, that the two worlds are hardly comparable, if not incompatible.
Differences in Sound & Articulation
Let me illustrate this with a few points:
- The harpsichord offers very limited means in dynamics, and so, harpsichord playing focuses on articulation and agogics, while on a piano, baroque Klangrede is much harder to realize (if at all).
- Typically, motoric movements (here, the fugue in the Sinfonia, the Courante, the concluding Capriccio) are usually played much faster on a piano (typically at the expense of articulation detail);
- In slow movements (such as the Sarabande), pianists tend to resort to using dynamic means. Some also add extra blurring using the sustain pedal (which the harpsichord doesn’t have).
The difference between the two instruments is not just in the way in which the strings are actuated (plucked vs. hammered, plectrum vs. felt-coated hammer, uniform plucking strength vs. finger-controlled hammer action). Among other factors, the fact that tones on a harpsichord have a very defined ending (when the plectrum retracts below the string and the damper sits on the string) is just as important. With this, the harpsichord offers far more gradations between legato, tenuto, and staccato. All this effectively gives the harpsichord a much better-defined “syntax” / articulation strength, at the expense of differentiation in dynamics and tone characteristics. The harpsichord of course als has severe limitations in volume: they are not suited for most of today’s concert venues.
The Modern Grand — Forbidden?
That does not imply that a pianist can’t produce an interesting, valuable, even valid interpretation and offer an enriching experience. Though, ideally, I think that the listener should be aware of the fact that what (s)he is hearing is strictly outside of Bach’s realm, does and can not correspond to the composer’s original intent. Such interpretations ought to be viewed as transcriptions or arrangements by the artist, even if all notes are played “exactly as found in the score”.
To me, Beatrice Rana‘s sounded convincing, often virtuosic, yet unpretentious. She played in a fluent tempo, full of momentum in the fast movements, with lots of expression in the lyrical parts, and typically with very little use of the sustain pedal.
The artist opened the Grave part of the Sinfonia with very pronounced double-punctuations (as typical and appropriate for an overture in French style), starting ff, followed by a decrescendo, then doing a short crescendo again for the transition to the Andante part. Throughout the Partita, she articulated carefully—as much as feasible on a concert grand. She used moderate dynamics to compensate for instrumental limitations in the area of Klangrede / articulation detail. Compared to typical harpsichord interpretations, the fugue was fast and virtuosic. This is in line with what pianists typically do in this and similar movements (see above), substituting virtuosity for the harpsichord’s detailed articulation language. Harpsichordists usually play this much slower.
The Allemande featured soft articulation, again unpretentious playing. In the first passage(s), ornaments were used sparingly (less than annotated). However, in the repeats (which were also differentiated dynamically), this was compensated by richer / additional (and very fitting, well-adapted) ornamentation. I found this to be in line with what we know about baroque playing style.
As already the last part of the Sinfonia, the Courante was rather fast (as typical on the piano), focusing on momentum and a fluent tempo, rather than on articulation detail.
The Sarabande was played carefully; among all the movements, this was the one that (to me) felt the farthest from how I picture this played on original instruments. It felt rather romantic, almost sentimental, lacking tension through articulation in comparison to period instruments. However, one cannot really expect pianists to imitate the harpsichord: if one selects a modern piano, one needs to adjust to that instrument’s language and possibilities.
The Rondeau was light, staccato—and maybe a tad excessive in dynamics and again with limited detail in articulation.
Finally, the polyphonic Capriccio, a technically demanding movement, was very transparent, clear. I was happy to note that Beatrice Rana avoided the danger of making the movement with its jumping bass line sound like a Boogie-Woogie (à la Fats Waller). Even notable harpsichordists fall in to this trap!
Debussy: Suite “Pour le Piano”, L.95
The composition Suite “Pour le Piano“, L.95 by the French composer Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) can be viewed as a reflection on baroque forms, although that relation is not a very close one. It’s a thoroughly impressionist composition; in fact, the titles of the three movements may be the closest link to the baroque formal language:
- Prélude (Assez animé et très rhythmé — Tempo di cadenza)
- Sarabande (Avec und élégance grave et lente)
- Toccata (Vif)
Apart from the titles, the allusions to baroque music are rather vague. The first movement, Prélude, bears no resemblance whatsoever to the preludes that open any of Bach’s suites. One may perhaps find similar movements in Bach’s prelude – fugue pairs, though, e.g., in Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The score features virtuosic semiquaver figures almost throughout, initially interchanging between sections with rhythmically accentuated secondary voice and pedal-blurred legato segments. The second half (especially the cadenza) features a firework in glissando scales. Beatrice Rana’s playing felt unpretentious, fluent, with natural virtuosity, avoiding excess harshness even in the ff / marcato chord cascades. I found this to be a romantic interpretation, overall, but very convincing.
Apart from its solemn tone, the subsequent Sarabande (Avec und élégance grave et lente, i.e., “with a heavy and slow elegance”) is far away from a Sarabande at Bach’s time. Here, I found Beatrice’s playing very differentiated, playing with soft dynamic shadings: enchanting, rather introverted, even in sections that others use to exhibit baroque richness, if not pomp. Here, even f / ff passages were rather retained, controlled.
The concluding Toccata felt playful, motoric (reminding of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti), lyrical in the legato middle section. Towards the end, at last, we did experience baroque grandeur and opulence in sound. Overall, I found this an excellent, technically flawless performance: well done!
Chopin: Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.35
The center piece of the program was the Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.35 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849). This is a key composition in the repertoire of most pianists. It features four movements, among them the famous funeral march (Marche funèbre):
- Grave, 2/2 — Doppio movimento
- Scherzo, 3/4— Più lento — Tempo I — Lento
- Marche funèbre, 4/4
- Presto (sotto voce e legato), 2/2
I. Grave — Doppio Movimento
In the first movement, the four Grave bars are just a short opening (one can barely call it preparation!). Beatrice Rana took the main part, Doppio movimento, in a very fluent tempo, with urge, while the contrasting sostenuto segments appeared with radiant serenity. She focused on the big phrases / arches, more than on detailed articulation and small-scale agogics, avoiding dissecting the music into short phrases.
I liked the fact that she opted to repeat the exposition with the four introductory Grave bars. To me, this absolutely makes sense, given the last four bars of the exposition, prior to the repeat sign. Only very few pianists chose this (to me, very logical) option, most just repeat from the Doppio movimento in bar 5. Overall, I found this a convincing interpretation, maybe with the exception of the ending, which I found to be blurred by an excess of sustain pedal.
The Scherzo movement was adjoined without interruption, attacca. Here again, I felt the big gestures, at a very fluent tempo, very aptly played, but without excessively showing off virtuosity. To me, the lyrical più lento segment appeared somewhat harmless, especially in the first section (the part without repeat signs). I wished for more depth—some of which was present in the (repeated) second part, which sounded more intense, building up. At the very end, the right hand holds a resting chord for more than four entire bars: that chord was a bit too soft, making those resting notes hardly audible on top of the two staccato octaves in the bass.
III. Marche funèbre
The famous Marche funèbre was played with careful dynamics, but remained rather lyrical, especially in the first part. It was certainly not overly dramatic, even though the ff passages were building up impressive strength and volume. This rather lyrical character in the march parts diminished the contrast to the serenely singing segments in major tonality. With the full contrast, I expect those serene sections to feel like brief visions, a glance from a dark, somber reality into a lucid, radiant world beyond.
The artist played also the final Presto directly attached, attacca. It’s a movement with neck-breaking virtuosity. Beatrice Rana played this very fast, with grumbling quaver triplets, retained, natural-sounding, unpretentious also here. She indeed played legato and sotto voce, as prescribed in the score. This was not an olympic demonstration of utter virtuosity. An honorable approach, for sure—but the virtuosic language, those extremely rapid, parallel triplet movements in both hands, should definitely not be more veiled or blurred than here!
Ravel: La Valse
For an introduction into the composition “La Valse”, poème choréographique by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) see my review on Oxana Shevchenko’s private recital on 2016-01-16. This was originally a piece for orchestra. It was later reworked for piano / four hands. Finally, the composer also arranged it for a single piano player. In this version, it is one of the most demanding pieces in the entire piano literature.
The difficulties are mostly in the sheer technical demands. The piano score (a translation from a complex orchestral score) is extremely dense and polyrhythmic, with such exotic demands as maintaining a waltz rhythm while simultaneously playing glissandi (up & down) across the entire keyboard. On top of that, there’s the question of interpretation: it is not sufficient to be technically brilliant, even perfect. Especially in the second half of the piece, the artist is meant to convey the crazy, menacing, scary, overexcited atmosphere of the orchestral version.
I found Beatrice Rana’s interpretation of this composition to be technically excellent, masterful. However, sometimes it was a bit too much melodious-waltzy, too harmless, lacking the fantastic, overturned drama, the sometimes ghastly scenery from the orchestral version. It seems to me that many pianists focus too much on technical perfection in this piece, neglecting the atmospheric dimension.
In response to the strong, enthusiastic applause in this concert, Beatrice Rana returned to the beginning, playing the Gigue from Johann Sebastian Bach‘s Partita No.1 in B♭ major, BWV 825. She offered a sporty, fast interpretation, not very differentiated in articulation and phrasing. However, an encore (especially after the above virtuosic, romantic pieces) rarely is the place for carefully reflected, elaborate and detailed performances…
For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.