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Sheer Joy, Real Joy

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/09/2022 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzi No.1, Op.20, No.2, Op.31, No.3, Op.39, & No.4, Op.54
Claude Debussy: Etudes, Book I Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from Pétrouchka

Beatrice Rana (Pianist)

B. Rana (© Marie Staggat/Warner Classics)

Nothing is more odious than music without hidden meaning.
Frédérik Chopin (1810-1849)

I wish to write down my musical dreams in a spirit of utter self-detachment. I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naive candor of a child.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

The problem with most Chopin performers is that they can’t take a joke. Chopin wrote four scherzi, and the enchantment with which Beatrice Rana played them last night should have generated–if not laugh out loud from the Carnegie Hall audience–a total delight.

I had previously heard the 31-year-old artist only through reputation: the scion of a professional Italian family of musicians. But one can be immediately enraptured by the combination of ear-popping technique and delectable color and touch. Not a single work was anything but extraordinarily difficult. Yet, two minutes after acknowledging her gossamer runs up and down the Steinway, one began to realize just how much sensitivity lies behind those fingers.

Chopin’s First Scherzo started–or startled!–with a piano resembling a tornado. By the trio, Ms. Rana had rid us of mere startled admiration and gradually segued to the lyrical gentle lullaby until returning to her storm.

The Third and Fourth Scherzi showed the expert at work, handling all the speed and precision needed. In fact the final runs and dotted rhythms of the final Scherzo–if lacking the pure demonic undercurrent–was razor-sharp.

Yet it was the Second Scherzo in B flat minor that was most memorable. Not the beauty of sound or clarity of communication. But that one felt, in the contrasts of moods, that Chopin was telling a story. Not a verbal tale, but a tale which could be told only with notes. Here Ms. Rana was a narrator, never surrendering the shape, always offering ever-changing moods.

What can one say about the Debussy Etudes which wasn’t said in her fingers. This Book I sextet of exercises is so strenuous that few pianists dare play them all. With Ms. Rana, the fingers only started the sprint towards Parnassus. The accents here were on the actual humor, the ebullient satire of (ugh) Czerny, the young students’ bête noire. The rest were tests, challenges, Herculean ordeals over which Ms. Rana skipped and juggled, ran the gossamer runs These were not the “musical dreams” from the quote at the top. These were in Debussy’s words (I believe) “difficult pieces for the most accomplished pianists.”

Difficult? These were no “children’s dreams” as in the quote above. At their best, they sound like the most demonic Scriabin on steroids. For good reason, I had never heard any pianist play them in New York. If Ms. Rana was the first, bless her. I did get lost in the figurations, yet I did have fun in the final one: “Pour les huit doigts”. In other words, Debussy without thumbs.

“Aha!” thought this listener. “Let’s see if she cheats.” No answer here. Her fingers, her hand-crossings, he cross-rhythms and ever-changing harmonies were so fleet that her fingers were impervious to analysis. Let’s just take on faith that she was thumbless throughout.

The finale was a work written for Arthur Rubinstein, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces from his Pétrouchka. These can be played (and usually are) as finales by grandstanding virtuosi. However, Ms. Rana had no need to demonstrate her bravura. This had been demonstrated by the very first note of the B Minor Scherzo. Here, Ms. Rana not only played with deliciousness of Stravinsky’s carnival, but with a balletic vigor, a bouncing drive. She didn’t always reach for the orchestral similitude, though she came close to the shrill clarinets, the reverberating bassoons, an almost exact oboe in the second movement.

But above all, Ms. Rana showed not only delight and dexterity, but joy, real joy.

Harry Rolnick



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