Fort Worth — One of the joys of living in North Texas is that not only do we get to follow the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, but we also get to reevaluate the winners later on in local concerts. Sean Chen was more impressive in his recent recital than he was when he won his third place finish in 2013. Alessandro Deljavan, who didn’t make the finals this past competition, gave an incendiary performance of the Rachmaninoff second concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony that had many wondering why he did not do better.
On Tuesday night it was 2013 Silver Medalist Beatrice Rana’s turn.
The Cliburn Concerts presented Rana in a solo recital in Bass Performance Hall, opening the organization’s 2014-15 season. The balconies were closed but the main floor was packed. A cursory glance around showed that most of the pianists in the area were in attendance. The superb pianist Anton Nel even drove up from Austin for the occasion. This star-studded audience sat in rapt attention, creating the quietest audience in memory. They also delivered an enthusiastic standing ovation when it was over.
Rana played a program reminiscent of university graduate recitals: something Baroque and a big romantic and contemporary work. Since few can move easily between such disparate styles and performance practices, such a program is always revealing. Such was the case with Rana. Things got noticeably better as the evening progressed.
Bach’s B-flat major Partita (BWV 825) is basically a suite of dances that were popular at the time. It opens with a prelude followed by a corrente, a sarabande, two minuets and a gigue. Bach wrote this music for the harpsichord, but it is most always heard on the modern piano. There is a lot of controversy about how Bach should be performed without adding in the complication of the change of instruments. Bach gave little indication of how he wanted the music to be played, but it is a little easier to discern because we know these dances from other sources.
Rana displayed the impeccable technique that won her the prize. She kept her dynamic range within modest Baroque limits and gave a very clean performance. Many would argue with her tempi, lack of clearly marked out dance rhythms, overabundance of rubato and her use of the sustaining pedal. An equal number would defend her decisions, though. Whichever way you may lean on such matters, her performance was convincing and consistent.
Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata, No. 2, is very well known—at least the somber funeral march part of it. As in the Bach, Rana took quite a few liberties with this sonata and used too much pedal here and there. Overall, however, this was an excellent performance; one of the most convincing I have heard in a while. Some of her soft playing was gossamer, showing amazing control of the keyboard and a vibrant sense of line.
All of the questions we may have had about her playing vanished after intermission when she gave a rip-snortin’, razzle-dazzle, keyboard-smokin’ performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 Op. 82, which is more or less in the vicinity of A major. This is an exciting roller coaster of a work with all the same chills, thrills, sudden drops and sharp turns. There are places of hushed lyricism and other places where the piano is given a standing KO when it is hit with the full force of a champion boxer. A ravenous Rana ravaged and ate the piece whole. She took many chances, such as the blindingly fast tempo at the end, but she was always in control and confident of her ability. Whenever we thought it might come off the rails as an especially tricky passage loomed ahead, Rana ran through it with ease.
The ovation elicited an encore: Franz Liszt’s inflated arrangement of Schumann’s song “Widmung.”
All of Rana’s plusses and minuses were on full display in miniature in this encore performance—her jaw-dropping technical brilliance as well as her free relationship with tempi and love of the sustaining pedal. My big complaint was her failure to breathe with the song. The always-showy Liszt may have turned it into a virtuoso showpiece, but it is still a song with phrases that a singer would punctuate with breaths. Without these, the beautiful melody was like a run-on sentence.
The Cliburn has been live-streaming the competitions over the Internet for a while, but this was the first of their concert series to receive the same treatment. Supposedly, what we saw of the large suspended screen was what was being broadcast. Much as it was in the competition, it was distressing to watch it in the hall. For one thing, it was just a hair behind, so the sound didn’t match her hand movements. Also, its constant movement was a distraction.