Beatrice Rana at San Carlo. A golden web of glorious sounds

Wonderful to see Beatrice Rana on this vast stage of one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world – San Carlo in Naples.The third in a series of six piano recitals for this new venture of artistic director Stéphane Lissner :Festival Pianistico 2022.A festival that is alternating with the much awaited performances of Turandot with Jonas Kaufmann.

An indisposed Daniel Barenboim who was to open the festival was substituted by another of the greatest pianists of our age :Arcadi Volodos.- reminds me of Montserrat Caballé cancelling at the Ghione Theatre in Rome due to a broken leg – her place was taken by Marylene Horne!)The other concerts are : Alexandra Dovgan ( a fifteen year old pianist much admired by Sokolov and not only!),Beatrice Rana,Bertrand Chamayou,,Rafal Blechacz ( 2005 winner of the Chopin competition in Warsaw) and Benjamin Grosvenor ( winner of the BBC young musicians competition at the age of 11).

A fascinating array of stars mostly from the younger generation that bodes well for future festivals. I heard from the artistic director’s very informed conversation on RAI 3 that next years festival is already in advanced stage of organisation with Maria Jose Pires at the helm.To see a Steinway concert grand on this vast stage sitting nobly in front of the beautiful historic backcloth is indeed a wonder in itself.But when a beautiful young lady in a sumptuous evening gown floats on and begins to play one realises what wonders they could perform in the past centuries.Creating in this beautiful horseshoe shape a natural acoustic that would allow the sound to carry with the same intensity in the front row as to the last seats high in the ‘Gods’.At La Fenice Opera House in Venice the sound is helped by meters of broken glass being placed in the orchestral pit!And we think we are so much more advanced these days!

And what a sound it was as Beatrice attacked the piano with the devilish Presto con fuoco of the first of Chopin’s four scherzi.Immediately noticeable were the deep bass notes that allowed her fiery temperament to shoot so fearlessly to the top of the keyboard arriving on high with a crack of the whip.Her supreme musicianship made her aware of the left hand melodic line in the ritenuto passages that are revealed after startlingly virtuosistic passages.A deep bass melody that I have never heard played so prominently leading to the beauty and busy weaving sotto voce agitato,almost Schumannesque, as the harmonies are allowed to glow with such warmth.The beautiful middle episode that Chopin quotes from an old Polish Christmas song (Lulajże Jezuniu) was played with intimate reflection and beauty.I felt that here,though,and in the other lyrical passages in the first three scherzi that there was a rather too intimate change of mood and that more diaphragm was needed to keep the coherent overall architectural shape alive even in these moments of intimate confession.It is exactly in these vast opera houses that actors and singers learn what it means to have an instrument that can whisper the most secret confessions to the audience that will arrive with the same intensity in the first row as in the last!Instrumentalists call it weight that allows the sounds to fill the hall,arriving so perfectly to every member of their audience awaiting with baited breath!The mighty coda of this first scherzo held no terror for the fearless onslaught that she brought to these savage passages of fortississimo chords before exploding into the fiery transcendental virtuosity of the final few bars. This scherzo was written in 1831, during the November Uprising against the Russian Empire.A friend of Chopin’s, Thomas Albrecht, to whom it was dedicated, convinced him to stay in Vienna, away from his family in Poland and to build his musical career. During this time he only played one concert, where he performed his E minor Concerto.Because of the struggle and the war, his compositions changed from pieces of a brilliant style to works in a new, darker tonality.Chopin composed this scherzo and several of the Etudes op.10 in this period when he was only 21.As Schumann was to say:’How is ‘gravity’ to clothe itself if ‘jest’ goes about in dark veils’.

There was great beauty in the second scherzo where the ‘con anima’ was played with ravishing colours alternating with the tempestuous outpourings of passages that swept across the entire keyboard.The beautiful central ‘sostenuto’ marked in several passages delicatissimo drew her audience in to overhear these subtle intimate confessions.Building to a triumphant climax that dies away to the menacing whisper of the opening theme.I found this climax a bit clipped and could well have been bathed in more pedal as Chopin himself does in fact indicate.She built the coda to a high pitch of animal excitement in a passage that would have Rubinstein rising from the stool in the same frenzy of passionate involvement.To quote Schumann, “so overflowing with tenderness, boldness, love and contempt.”

The third scherzo was completed in 1839, and was written in the abandoned monastery of Valldemossa in Majorca and is the most terse, ironic, and tightly constructed of the four scherzi, with an almost Beethovenian grandeur.The great octave statements and the following relentless left hand passages were played with remarkable virtuosity but it was the chorale with its shimmering celestial comments that was so moving.Here her architectural sense of shape allowed the chorale melody to ring out with sumptuous clarity.The sotto voce very moving minor statement of the chorale was played much slower and lost some of the impetus and overall shape even though played quite ravishingly.With Chopin there is always an aristocratic sentiment like Schumann’s Florestan and very rarely a Eusebius or sentimental one as Rubinstein was to show us on this very stage so many times.It was in the elusive fourth scherzo that Beatrice was to give her most magnificent performance of the Scherzi.Her fleeting jeux perlé and poetic vision created a vision of at times Mendelssohnian lightness and aristocratic control. The beautiful ‘polish song’ of the sublime central episode was played with such subtle inflections and style that contrasted with the final nobility and grandeur that she brought to the final pages.

Chopin’s manuscript of the Fourth Scherzo

The first three Scherzi are all in a minor key and the major key to the fourth brings a radiance and lyricism that was to be such a mark of Chopin in his later years.Unlike the classical model of the Scherzo the musical form adopted by Chopin is not characterised by humour or elements of surprise, but by highly charged “gestures of despair and demonic energy”.Schumann wrote about the first scherzo: “How is ‘gravity’ to clothe itself if ‘jest’ goes about in dark veils?”Although various Beethovenian features of the scherzo are preserved—an A–B–A structure with sections A and B contrasting, triple time, pronounced articulation and sforzando accents—in terms of musical depth, Chopin’s four scherzos enter into a different and grander realm. They are all marked presto or presto con fuoco and “expand immeasurably both the scale of the genre and its expressive range”. In these piano pieces, particular the first three, any initial feeling of levity or jocularity is replaced by “an almost demonic power and energy”.

The studies by Debussy are a set of 12 piano études composed in 1915. Debussy described them as “a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands”.They are broadly considered his late masterpieces.And in Beatrice’s hands she created a sound world that was magic indeed.Starting with the innocent five finger exercise that was gradually transformed into washes of colour and transcendental virtuosity ironically dedicated to Monsieur Czerny!Such delicacy in the study in thirds and the pure magic of the fourths.There was lightness and total command in the octave study and the study for eight fingers was quite breathtaking in its sweep and authority.

The whole of this second half was a continuous outpouring of amazing virtuosity allied to a sense of style and character that was truly remarkable.Whereas her Chopin beautiful and respectful though it was,it was in these works by Debussy and Stravinsky that she threw herself with absolute conviction and a fearless sense of fantasy and colour that one could feel the sparks flying even from my place high up in what at Teatro Colon is called Paradiso.

Paradise it was indeed as after a much deserved tumultuous ovation she returned to play Godowsky’s magical transcription of Saint Saens -The Swan.How many times I heard Cherkassky play this too after his triumphant recitals in the Ghione Theatre .The last time I heard him play it was at his own funeral at St George’s in Hannover Square – chosen because it was in the same street as the hallowed hall of Steinways.

Our fearless Beatrice driven by such an ovation gave a performance of Chopin’s most feared Prelude op 28 n.16.It was played with breathtaking audacity and superlative control but allied to the same passion and fiery temperament that we were to find in the overcrowded streets of Naples that awaited us after such a sumptuous feast of piano playing.

A seething mass of humans waiting for ‘they know not what’ as shabby bearded street urchins on battered Vespas arise out of their midst like praying mantice adding quite notably to the black economy that Italy boasts in this untethered wilderness.Pity my phone was snatched out of my hand on the way to the station(which accounts for the paucity of photos here) but if that is the price one must pay these days for venturing into one of the most extraordinary cities in the world I would risk it again and again to hear such wondrous sounds.


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