Beatrice Rana Fuses Ferocity And Beauty In ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata

A highlight of Beatrice Rana’s recital was Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. (Parlophone Records Limited/Simon Fowler)

TORONTO — Italian pianist Beatrice Rana stumbled briefly as she made her first entrance on the Koerner Hall stage, but after that hardly put a foot or a finger wrong in a sensational recital of works by Bach, Debussy, and Beethoven.

Rana is no stranger to Canada. In 2011 she won First Prize at the Montreal International Piano Competition, and she made her debut in Toronto in 2018. She is now well established as a major artist and is receiving positive reviews for her recent recording of the Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann concertos with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

On the basis of the Schumann recording, I had been inclined to profile Rana as a poetic and improvisational artist, ideal for this repertoire. But in Toronto, after hearing Rana play quite different repertoire, especially Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (No. 29 in B-flat, Op. 106), the centerpiece of her recital, I realized that I had been mistaken. Rana was poetic and improvisational all right, but she was also much, much more than that. I have heard a lot of Beethoven over the years, but never have I heard the Hammerklavier played with such fire and passion. Not to mention that this notoriously difficult piece was played with almost miraculous technical mastery.

The legendary musicologist and analyst Donald Tovey has referred to the “trumpet-like coloring” of the opening bars. But rarely has the stentorian majesty of this music ever sounded so bold and exhilarating. Rana made us sit up straight in our seats with a fortissimo that was magnificent. She chose moderate tempos for the most part and never pushed the music for the sake of superficial excitement. The excitement seemed to come naturally, from the extreme contrasts in dynamics and from the lacerating renderings of nearly every sforzando in the score.

After the power and drive of the first movement and the rhythmic verve of the brief Scherzo that follows, the long slow movement comes as a welcome relaxation. But in its own way this music is just as intense, and Rana got to the heart of it without artifice or exaggeration. There are no extremes of dynamics in this movement. The music is mostly quiet and thoughtful, and she made it sound as beautiful as I have ever heard it.

It is the last movement with its astounding fugal complexity that has been reducing pianists to tears for more than two centuries now. When Beethoven composed this music in 1818, few if any pianists could play it, and few if any keyboard instruments of the period could take it, either. Both pianos and pianists have improved over the years, but this music remains a formidable challenge. In most performances one can’t help but be conscious of the struggle involved just to play the notes and to keep it all going. Not so with Rana. Her playing was both fearless and authoritative. She never faltered in maintaining the tempo, pulling off the wide leaps, and tossing off the long and loud trills with both security and conviction. At times she played with such abandon, it was as if she were composing the music herself.

Rana is artistic director of the Classiche Forme chamber music festival in her Italian hometown. (Simon Fowler)

Beethoven as a man was known to be unconventional and unpredictable. In his music he was original, profound, and indescribably expressive. But he also created some of the most complex artistic structures in the history of music. The Hammerklavier is a prime example of Beethoven the man and the creator at his best. To hear it brought to life by an artist of Rana’s stature is to be privy to an experience almost without equal.

She opened her program with Bach’s French Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 813. Rana has already given us a fine recording of the Goldberg Variations (Warner Classics 190295879457), and in the French Suite she was just as assured, and as modern. There was no attempt at historically informed performance, just remarkably clean articulation and a fairly wide dynamic range — especially in the final Gigue in which Rana took pains to emphasize the dissonance in the music. It was perhaps on the aggressive side but compelling, too.

Debussy’s Pour le piano, published in 1901, has more than a touch of the Baroque in the first-movement Prélude, a second-movement Sarabande, and a final Toccata. But the sound of the music is about as far as one could get from the world of Bach and Couperin. Debussy’s use of modal harmony and chromaticism, and the creation of keyboard colors entirely new in piano music, was a revelation. Rana excelled in this music, too, with dazzling technique.

Rana records exclusively for Warner Classics, and her CDs of music by Ravel, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Chopin, and others are excellent. She was a silver medalist at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and the Cliburn has released four CDs of her performances from the competition.

Since 2017, Rana has had her own chamber music festival, Classiche Forme, each summer in her hometown of Lecce, Puglia, in Italy. For details, go here.