Review: Beatrice Rana slays the Brahms dragon with fearless performance

Beatrcie Rana. Photo: Marie Staggat

It doesn’t get much more traditional at the symphony than a program of Brahms and Schumann. But far from being staid, Wednesday evening’s NACO concert showed how even the most conservative of repertoires can spark and sizzle over the hot coals of imagination and daring.

At 24, Beatrice Rana has already spent six years in the top echelons of the international piano rankings, having won the Montreal International Competition at 18 and the Van Cliburn two years later. For all her astonishing talent and facility, Rana has said that she has felt intimidated by Brahms until only quite recently. Her dragon-slaying performance of the composer’s mammoth First Piano Concerto proved she has nothing to fear.

Yes, Rana is a technical heavyweight. She devours the keyboard with blistering, roaring octave runs, and a satisfying snap to her articulation. But in the Brahms she demonstrated her magnificent artistry. She is one of the only pianists I’ve heard in Southam Hall to produce a true pianissimo; even at the quietest end of her enormous dynamic range, her plush, glossy sound projects to the back of the room. There’s an alluring, airy flexibility to her phrasing, and Rana instinctively understands and exploits all the tiny spaces and silences between the notes. The Adagio floated by in a meditative hush. I have rarely head this formidable concerto played with such thoughtful attention to detail — all the inner voicings expressed with crystalline focus–coupled with radical, completely uninhibited poetry. This was pianism at its thrilling best.

Shelley’s controlled fire on the podium matched Rana’s, and he gave her a backdrop of dusky, barrel-aged orchestra colour against which to glow.

I’ve never been convinced by Ravel’s glib, overly extroverted orchestration of Schumann’s Carnaval for solo piano, which opened the second half. It’s a rare miss for Ravel,the master orchestrator, although NACO’s reading was charming.

The last time Shelley conducted Schumann’s Second Symphony, the orchestra was still adjusting to the newly renovated hall, and I wrote about some issues with balance and intonation. Everyone is now completely at home, and it showed in the evolution of Shelley’s interpretation, which has become less sentimental and more audacious.

After a majestic opening, the first movement had a mischievous bounce in its step. Shelley drove the chattering second movement hard. Even the Adagio, which I’ve heard conductors milk endlessly, was taken at a less languorous pace, a risk that paid off with a sense of inexorable flow.

It should have been a big night for the French horn section, which has been playing consistently so well. Perhaps it was the presence of the thickets of recording microphones, but they sounded uncharacteristically tense and tentative.

Timothy Hutchins, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s incomparable principal flute, sat in. NACO takes the program to Hutchins’ home hall, the Maison Symphonique, Thursday night. The concert repeats in Ottawa on Friday.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.