Beatrice Rana and a Fabbrini piano in a room in Rome full of frescoes

ItalyItaly Bach, Debussy, Chopin: Beatrice Rana (piano), recorded exclusively for Cal Performances at Oratorio del Gonfalone, Rome, 6-7.4.2021. First streamed 13.5.2021, and available on demand through 12.6.2021. (HS)

Beatrice Rana for Cal Performances in Rome

Bach – French Suite No.2 in C minor
Debussy – Études Nos.1,2,5
Chopin – Scherzos Nos.1,2,3,4

The Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, not yet 30 years old, introduces herself to Cal Performances, the presenting arm of the University of California, Berkeley, with a streamed video program of Bach, Debussy and Chopin. But none of the pieces are the obvious choices: for Bach, it’s the second French Suite; for Debussy, three of the Etudes (almost never heard compared with performances of the composer’s popular Preludes); and for Chopin, the four Scherzos.

The through line is France. Bach never got to France, of course, but he wrote his six French suites in a style that was becoming highly popular at the time (mid-eighteenth century). For Debussy, a Parisian, the études, written in 1915, were among his last compositions, and Chopin lived in Paris when he wrote three of the four Scherzos, which span ten years of his two-decade nineteenth-century career.

Rana has established a reputation for a wide range of repertoire. She learned the Debussy works while in COVID-required isolation at her home in Rome. Without a busy schedule of concerts to prepare, she could delve into the notoriously difficult works. By a wide margin, these three relatively short pieces stand out as the highlights of the concert, with a freshness and joy that’s missing in her execution of the other music.

The three selections (from Debussy’s 12) brim with the composer’s signature sly wit. At the beginning of No.1 (‘pour les cinq doigts d’après Monsieur Czerny’), Rana cracks a rare smile while executing a satire of Czerny’s up-and-down scales, the bane of so many beginning pianists. It is interrupted by dissonant punctuations, eventually spinning off into an entirely different musical world. This was written four years after the debut of Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps, right in Debussy’s backyard, and it finds Debussy, often pigeonholed as an Impressionist, digging into clashing harmonies while retaining an unmistakable signature style.

No.2 (‘pour les tierces’) raises a study of thirds into an art form. Rana makes the sweetness of these intervals float through complex passages. No.5 (‘pour les octaves’) erupts into a vaguely Chopin-like waltz, for which Rana emphasizes smoothness over bravado.

Beatrice Rana plays in Rome’s Oratorio del Gonfalone

There is a bit of cognitive dissonance placing this music in the physical setting, a sixteenth-century chapel. Frescoes of scenes from the Passion cover the walls of the Oratorio del Gonfalone in Rome; these art works were fully restored only in the past decade. The intimate chapel has become a scene for early music choral concerts. The acoustics capture the best aspects of Rana’s piano, a Fabbrini Steinway famous for its ability to deliver nuances in tone, especially in quieter music.

This is certainly the case in the Bach suite that opened the recital. Rana uses the instrument’s facility to find a gentle lilt in the Allemande and sing the long, lithe line of the Sarabande. Unfortunately, too much pedal for this intimate space makes livelier passages come off as muddy.

This is even more obvious in the Chopin, where she launches the rapid-fire passages of Scherzo No.1 at such a breakneck clip that clarity blurs. The same happens in No.4, sapping so much energy from Chopin’s intensity that the restful interludes find little contrast in style with the fast sections. Fleet decorations drape over the slower music like a sheet instead sprinkling fairy dust on it.

The quieter, slower music, however, is absolutely delectable.

Harvey Steiman

The video is available on demand at Cal Performances: click here.

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