As Autumn draws in, there is usually a bumper selection of new piano recordings to enjoy, and this year is proving no exception.
In recent weeks, several major artists have released recordings which explore unusual territory, adding to the interest of their programmes. Streaming these latest issues, I have heard superlative pianism and moments of supreme beauty and inspiration. Sadly though, I must also admit that some albums I had high hopes for have ultimately left me disappointed, proving perhaps that novelty as an end in itself is not always the best route.
Enter Beatrice Rana with her latest CD for Warner Classics. Following on from her stunning and highly acclaimed recording of Ravel and Stravinsky a couple of years ago (my Recording of the Month here), Rana’s latest disc is a recital of Chopin, comprising his 12 Études Op.25 and the Four Scherzi.
And that’s it. No obscurities, DJ collaborations or electronic noodling thrown in to entice the punters, nor even an encore bonbon to sweeten what is essentially a rather dark programme.
But Rana’s programme is, in my view, the most audacious of all. It is perhaps easier to impress with music that is lesser known; to tackle two such beloved monuments of the piano repertoire and breathe fresh, invigorating life and artistic illumination into them: well, that’s a significant challenge!
And – big sigh – Rana succeeds.
This new recording is in a word: magnificent.
The Drama of Chopin
For her first full disc of Chopin (having previously recorded the Preludes Op.28) Rana has plunged headfirst into deep waters: here are some of Chopin’s most virtuosic, structurally complex and dramatic compositions.
Chopin’s second set of twelve Études, the Op.25 included here, were composed between 1832-5 and published together in 1837. For reasons that remain a mystery, if not a matter of speculation, they were dedicated to Liszt’s mistress, the writer Marie d’Agoult.
Along with the previous set Op.10, Chopin’s Op.25 Études have become something of a pianistic rite of passage in music conservatoires and piano competitions, beloved for their artistic merit and musical appeal as much as they are revered for their technical demands, which truly leave no place for the player to hide.
Rana tells us in the CD booklet notes:
“It is often written that each of the Études in Chopin’s Op.25 is a self-standing piece of music. However, to me they seem implicitly connected, joined by a single line of expression, as if they are taking you on a journey…”
Here’s how that journey begins: Rana’s gorgeous performance of the Étude Op.25 No.1 in A flat, the “Aeolian Harp”:
The journey soon takes us into darker territory, running a gamut of ever more disturbing emotions and culminating in the terrifying triptych of Études in B minor, A minor and C minor, described by Rana as:
“…emotionally agonising, as if reflecting a cry of desperation from the composer.”
Here is her performance of No.11 in A minor, “Winter Winds”:
Chopin’s Four Scherzi appeared as individual concert works between 1835 and 1843. They are often linked to the equally dramatic Four Ballades, published more or less within the same timeframe. It is unknown whether Chopin himself ever performed these works, but they have nevertheless rightly established themselves at the pinnacle of the recital repertoire, the second Scherzo finding particular popularity.
The four pieces each brilliantly exploits the physical dimensions of piano playing, with virtuosity and drama to the forefront. This makes them among Chopin’s most difficult works, and not just for performers.
Rana tells us,
“I studied the Scherzi during the first lockdown caused by the pandemic, and I feel that these compositions, packed with myriad contrasts, have a lot in common with many people’s experiences during this exceptionally difficult period. Music is like that: it has the power to describe what we are living through far more eloquently than we can ourselves.”
The Audacity of Rana
Were I to list the various and many classic recordings of this repertoire, it would soon read like a “who’s who” of the most legendary recording pianists of the last and this century. So where does Rana’s interpretation fit within this pantheon?
In a statement that makes me feel more particularly old, Rana tells us that she came to Chopin late. In fact she recorded the Preludes when she was just 18 (she is now 28), but for context she had been performing on an increasingly global stage for at least a decade by that point. She tells us that her teacher did not want to introduce her to Chopin too early, and notes that while this was at the time disappointing, she now agrees with his wisdom:
“Chopin is reserved, visionary and mysterious, certainly not an easy composer for performers to deal with, requiring a huge amount of preparation and thorough research. There are Romantic elements to his work, but it is never sweet or sugary; it has powerful musical substance, even ferocious in places.
…people were conditioned to believe that his work should always be pleasing to the ear, while I took a different, less conventional view.”
This seems to me an eloquent summary of Rana’s Chopin playing; those expecting the genteel or relaxing music of a Calm Piano Playlist are in for a shock. Rana eschews superficiality, engaging with the composer’s darker contradictions and seemingly troubled soul. Hers is Chopin playing of striking originality and at times unreserved power.
Rana has an astonishing ability to reveal this music as though we have never previously heard it, such is the verve and vigour of her interpretation. There is extraordinary clarity here too, thanks to some mind-meltingly deft finger work and Rana’s sophisticated pedalling prowess; details are revealed in the music which are too often obscured, even on some of the best recordings.
This is in no way to suggest that beauty is ever lacking here, either: far from it, Rana revels in the lyrical interludes that permeate this music, repeatedly ensnaring the unwary listener in the process.
Simply, there is a ferocious musical intelligence and startling originality to Rana’s Chopin readings that comfortably place this disc on the top table. And happily, such a momentous addition to the Chopin catalogue has been superbly captured by producer and recording engineer Jørn Pedersen.
The Études were recorded at the Teldex Studios, Berlin in January 2020, while the team accompanied Rana back to Berlin to record the Scherzi post-lockdown in February 2021.
And while many will choose to listen within their streaming subscription, for those purchasing the CD (as I have), the presentation deserves high praise, the release appearing as a hardback book containing the CD at the rear:
Here is one of those rare recordings which exceeded my expectations, even though they were sky-high. Yes, I am already a committed fan of Beatrice Rana’s playing. But with this release she has surprised me yet again, and long may that continue!
Miss this album, and you will be depriving yourself of one of the most astonishing Chopin recordings of the modern age.
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