Beatrice Rana Makes Compelling Debut In Chicago

After her stunning Chicago debut, Beatrice Rana’s U.S. recital swing continues with dates in Boston, Rochester, Santa Barbara, Arcata, Costa Mesa, and New York City. (Photos by Marie Staggat)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — Like the rest of the classical-music scene, the keyboard world is never static. As some names fade or disappear, new ones are constantly added, like Beatrice Rana. The 26-year-old Italian pianist was thrust into the international spotlight in 2011, when she won first prize and special jury prizes at the Montreal International Competition. Six years later, her recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the Warner Classics label debuted at No. 1 on the United Kingdom classical charts and earned her a Gramophone Award as Young Artist of the Year.

Rana’s Chopin: muscularity balanced by poetry.

Despite this flurry of success, the pianist has remained little known in the United States, something she has set out to rectify with an ambitious, three-week recital tour that includes a March 12 stop in Zankel Hall – her first such solo concert in New York City. She made her Chicago debut Feb. 24 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series (a presenting arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), delivering a spellbinding afternoon performance that showcased her grace, depth, and sensitivity as an interpreter.

Part of her success lay in her thoughtful, cohesive program, which played to her strengths as a musical storyteller and also told a story of its own, three distinctive approaches to keyboard composition, starting with Frederic Chopin in 1837 and continuing through the early 20th century. Although Rana has technique to burn, she is clearly not interested in flash and fireworks for their own sake. Instead, the emphasis here was on nuanced sonority and interpretative artistry.

The up-and-coming pianist opened the concert with Chopin’s Twelve Études, Op. 25, the second of the composer’s three sets of such works — a landmark collection that is one of the touchstones of the keyboard repertoire. Despite their title, which suggests a simple musical exercise, Chopin turned these short works into mini-masterpieces with a much larger artistic scope. Rana dug into each of the 12 and showcased its particular identity, beginning with a nimble, dreamy version of the No. 1 in A-flat major, Allegro sostenuto. She brought no shortage of punch and drive to the syncopated No. 4 in A minor, Agitato, and offered a deeply felt, introspective look at the melancholic No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Lento — one the highlights of the set.

Rana’s Bach debuted at No. 1 on U.K. classical charts.

The last three of the Études are strikingly longer and more imposing, starting with the No. 10 in B minor, Allegro con fuoco, which in Rana’s hands offered plenty of “wow” moments with big, fast-paced outer sections sandwiching an extraordinary, lyrical middle. Here and throughout the set, muscularity was always balanced by poetry, and an overriding sense of freedom and lightness ran through it all. Put simply, it was a wonderful performance.

Nuanced, organic-seeming changes in dynamics and tempos were a hallmark of the pianist’s approach to the Études, and both were much in evidence again in the program’s second work, Ravel’s Miroirs (1904-05). The suite’s five evocative movements were ideally suited to Rana’s story-telling sensibility, and she made the most of them, displaying her exquisite control and capturing the improvisatory, other-worldly feel that is suffused throughout. Each section had notable strengths, but highlights included the magical third movement, “Une barque sur l’océan” (A Ship on the Ocean), with its shimmering, harp-like cascades of notes; the big, wide-ranging fourth movement, “Alborada del gracioso” (The Jester’s Aubade), with its rhythmic drive and finger-twisting challenges; and the gentle, lonely fifth movement, “La vallée des cloches” (The Valley of the Bells).

Rana’s ‘Firebird’ had a no-holds-barred take on the fast and furious “Danse infernale.”

The soloist smartly capped the afternoon with an appealingly showy 1928 transcription of three well-known sections from Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird, by Guido Agosti (1901-1989), an Italian pianist and teacher. Although this arrangement was inevitably smaller in scale than the full orchestral version, Rana nonetheless managed to vividly convey the ballet’s sweep and drama. If any doubts remained about her technical prowess, they were obliterated by her thrilling, no-holds-barred take on the fast and furious “Danse infernale.” But she never lost any sense of control, following it with a lovely, subtle take on the slow, mysterious second section, Berceuse. It sounded very Ravel-like in this context, and that was surely no coincidence.

After enthusiastic ovations from the Symphony Center crowd, Rana returned for two encores, and her choices were not surprising given how she started the afternoon: Chopin’s Prelude in F-sharp major, Op. 28, No. 13, and Prelude in B-flat minor, Op. 28, No. 16. Much like the main program, she offered finesse and fire, beginning with a delicate, tranquil take on the first and then letting loose with a fingers-flying zoom through the second.

Rana set out on this cross-country tour — which includes Boston on Feb. 27 , Rochester on March 1, Santa Barbara on March 3, Costa Mesa on March 6, Arcata on March 8, Atlanta on March 10, and New York City on March 12  — to make a statement and boost her American profile. At least in Chicago, she did both in spades.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.