VIENNA, Va., November 4, 2013 – 20-year old pianist Beatrice Rana graced the rustic stage of The Barns at Wolf Trap last Friday evening for the very first time. As the second scheduled performer in this year’s edition of the Discovery Series of classical concert evenings, she delivered an industrial-strength, knockout recital pairing two compositions of a youthful Robert Schumann against the icy, Russian bitterness of Serge Prokofiev.
Unfortunately, Ms. Rana—who won an impressive silver medal plus the audience award during this summer’s Van Cliburn piano competition in Ft. Worth, Texas—performed her heroics before a disappointingly less-than-full house in Wolf Trap’s more intimate off-season venue. The surprisingly high no-show contingent—the balcony seats were almost entirely empty—was likely due to Ms. Rana’s current status as a relative unknown in the U.S., despite her recent near-triumph in Texas.
As one might expect in a recital given by a recent piano competition awardee, there were no quiet, tiny classical jewels tucked away in Ms. Rana’s Friday program. Competitions are built around blockbuster concerto finales. When top young competitors go on the post-competition road, even on recital, audiences generally expect programs that go heavy on difficult, exciting stuff and Ms. Rana did not disappoint her audience here.
The first half of her recital was devoted to a pair of solo piano works by a very youthful Robert Schumann, including his very first opus number, his “Variations on the name “Abegg,” and his somewhat later Opus 13 “Symphonic Etudes.”
Normally, you’d expect at least a few youthful indiscretions in such early compositions, even if penned by an acknowledged master. But both these early Schumann works illustrate a composer who had already come to regard the piano, in many respects, as a symphony orchestra under the control of two hands.
While both compositions are, essentially, themes with variations—a loose format that doesn’t require much of a formal structure—they demonstrate the kind of melodic and harmonic innovations that became increasingly common in Romanticism’s middle period.
Although several competing stories exist about the gestation of the “Abegg” variations, all end up agreeing that the theme is built upon the last name of a Schumann acquaintance whose letters in German music notation, conveniently enough, designate the notes A, B-flat, E and two Gs. Having stated the simple theme in Opus 1’s opening bars, Schumann proceeds to build a rolling series of increasingly inventive variations that are at once entertaining and melodic while also posing considerable challenges for the piano soloist.
Ms. Rana performed the Variations with confidence as well as with a great deal of intuition and sensitivity, producing a surprisingly rich sound rendered crystal clear by a keenly sophisticated pedaling technique. Indeed, Ms. Rana’s pedaling throughout the evening produced fresh readings of all three works on the program which, like many Romantic and some modernist works are more often than not buried beneath the muddiness of over-pedaling.
In the “Symphonic Etudes” that followed, Ms. Rana drew an even greater range of expressiveness from her toolkit to match that luminous pedaling and the clean passagework that also distinguished her performance. Schumann fussed with this piece from time to time, and Ms. Rana ended up choosing a version that included the introductory theme, nine variations broken up by a pair of “Etudes,” and a grand finale.
Most of the “Etudes” are loaded with dense but expressive passagework, which Ms. Rana pulled off virtually without error. In so doing, she revealed a young Robert Schumann at his compositional and creative best, loading his works with both color and extraordinary difficulty while also throwing in the occasional musical joke.
All the variations/etudes in this set are of great interest, although Variation VI is quite intriguing on its own, foreshadowing in many ways the composer’s later, mighty “Toccata” for solo piano.
But perhaps the most impressive part of the “Etudes” is the Finale, marked “Allegro brillante,” a showpiece that often appears in recitals on its own. It’s a grand, sweeping gesture, alternating between a triumphal primary statement and martial trumpet calls. Ms. Rana’s performance combined passion with precision, the sheer drama of which drove this final movement to a highly dramatic and immensely satisfying close.
Ms. Rana offered something entirely different in the second half of her program, choosing the spiky, difficult Sixth Piano Sonata of Sergei Prokofiev to wrap up the evening. Gone entirely in this work is the Romanticism and warmth of Schumann and the Romantics. It’s replaced here by a bitterness and an irony that’s not surprising. Prokofiev’s Sixth dates from 1940 and is regarded as the first of the composer’s three “War Sonatas.” And that it is, filled to its bitter edge with slashing, sometimes ungainly tempos and sheer, pianistic violence, most obviously reflected in the vicious first movement and in the helter-skelter scampering of the finale.
The interior movements of this four-movement work conceal somewhat kinder, gentler nastiness, wrapping initially innocent seeming minuet- and waltz-like moments into an acidic mood not dissimilar to the humorous yet unpleasant work of exiled German composer Kurt Weill.
Ms. Rana navigated these dangerous musical shoals with a steely, yet at times lyric determination, playing the piano with the kind percussive brilliance that Prokofiev often preferred when describing the unbearable, yet alternating with unexpected moments of tranquility even if they only paved the way for the next angry outburst.
What was most impressive about her performance of this work was her ability to bring out the complicated inner voices and motifs other pianists often bury with undifferentiated pounding. For all this sonata’s slashing negativity, such moments are, here as always, concealed somewhere in Prokofiev’s craggy exteriors. Ms. Rana managed to excavate every one of them, illustrating that this work has far more subtlety than most performers allow.
An added plus—although some pianists drop buckets of notes in a work like this, since harsh, modernistic, dissonant pieces allow them to be dropped largely undetected—Ms. Rana dropped few if any, giving her performance an uncommon clarity to match her uncommon vision.
The audience gave the pianist a rousing ovation as she drove home the sonata’s final notes. She answered with a brief, passionate Rachmaninoff composition to close a most satisfying evening of music.
One suspects that the next time this young pianist is in town, she’ll be performing at a bigger, more expensive venue. But Wolf Trap’s Discovery Series patrons, at least the ones who showed up Friday, were able to see and hear her “up close and personal” and will likely long remember this first of many encounters with a young artist who’s likely on the verge of a long and successful career.
Rating: *** (3 stars out of 4)
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