As soon as Sam Dixon heard her play at last year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, he knew he wanted to book pianist Beatrice Rana into Spivey Hall’s prestigious piano series, even before the competition’s award winners were determined and announced. In the end, Rana captured both the silver medal and the audience award.
But what immediately grabbed the Spivey Hall executive director’s attention in her performance was that she is observably, in his words, a “natural pianist.” Dixon’s assessment was borne out Sunday afternoon when Rana made her Spivey Hall debut, performing music by Bach, Chopin and Prokofiev on the hall’s “Clara” Hamburg Steinway.
Rana, a 21-year-old Italian pianist who has already won multiple awards, including a first prize in 2011 from the Concours Musical International de Montréal, is not a performer prone to stage histrionics. Instead, she plays close to the keyboard. Rana is a musician’s musician, thoughtfully attending to unraveling the composer’s musical intent while giving the score a vividly personalized rendering, even at such a young age.
Rana opened with J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, the first in a set of six first published together under the composer’s direction as Clavier-Übung I (Keyboard Exercises I) in 1726. They are the last set of suites Bach composed for solo clavier, also the most demanding of technique. Rana took no more than a breath between the Partita’s seven movements — a praeludium, allemande, courante, sarabande, a pair of minuets and a gigue.
The most extreme historical purists will decry the use of a modern piano at all. The instrument, however, is indeed fully capable of allowing stylistically informed performances to be rendered under the right hands, and Rana does this extremely well, bringing out the music’s independent lines not only in weight but color. In the concluding gigue, she capped the entire with extra-speedy brilliance.
Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, completed in 1839, features a mostly stormy opening movement. That is followed by an impetuous scherzo with a more reflective middle section. But it is the third movement has worked its way into popular culture for its Funeral March, which is heard in the outer sections. So much so, it is hard to be more than earnest in its rendering without seeming caricaturish. Rana kept it away from those sentiments, pulling rather than pushing the momentum, without merely trudging.
The finale, however, seemed more muddy than ghostly, and a bit out of place with the rest of the sonata. Rana’s brief facial expression at the end left an impression that she was not entirely happy with the section herself, but she quickly recovered her smiling demeanor in the midst of acknowledging applause of the audience.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82 is the first of the so-called “War Sonatas,” all three of which he began composing in 1939. This one was first to be completed and was premiered in Moscow on April 8, 1940. It is also the largest of Prokofiev’s piano sonatas, as well as the most emotionally turbulent.
The frictive dissonances and frequent tonal shifts in the opening movement give it a feeling of unsettled desperation. Sharply marching outer sections sandwich a more lyrical middle in the second movement, while the third contains waltz-like characteristics. A concluding rondo recaptures the urgent, emotional uncertainty of the first. Rana gave the entire a memorable performance, at once incisive and sonorous, which demonstrated abundance of technique without superfluous gesture.
Five concerts remain in this season’s piano series at Spivey Hall. The scheduled artists, in calendar order, are Richard Goode, Steven Osborne, Shai Wosner, Stephen Hough and Benjamin Grosvenor.