Fast-rising Italian pianist Beatrice Rana made her subscription series debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra this week, capping a busy spring season that included a US recital tour and several high-profile symphonic appearances. Rana – who previously performed with the Philadelphians in 2015 at their summer home in Saratoga Springs, New York – selected Prokofiev’s familiar but demanding Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major for this engagement. One could see undeniable promise in the 26-year-old Copertino native.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Jan Regan

You could also sense the presence of an artist not yet fully formed. A competition prodigy, Rana still performs as if for judges, displaying methodical precision but lacking much emotional engagement or wit. She attacked the tricky triplets and jazzy sonorities of the concerto’s first movement with practiced ease, but she rarely seemed to get inside the music, focusing instead on technique. A certain timidity presented itself in her overall sound, which the orchestra frequently swamped, and which grew quite tinny throughout the theme and variations in the second movement.

Rana’s playing gained amplitude in the concluding Allegro ma non troppo, though her approach to the music remained oddly shapeless. And the sound balance still largely favored the symphonic forces. Perhaps that’s to be expected: the orchestra really shares star billing in this concerto, and music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin presented them at their showiest. The collective flash could be thrilling, but it also did a disservice to the debutant.

Rana seemed more at ease in her solo encore of Chopin’s Etude in A flat major, Op.25 no. 1. She created a soundscape so deep and expansive that I momentarily thought a cello was accompanying her. The solo recital repertoire might well be the ideal place to encounter her at this stage of her career.

The remainder of the overlong program, entitled Russian Masters, picked up the narrative thread from Prokofiev but only offered isolated thrills. I admire Nézet-Séguin’s devotion to Rachmaninov, but his performance of the composer’s Symphony no. 1 in D minor revealed little new depth from when he last led it locally five years ago. Pressing the full forces of the brass into service, he drew a bombastic sound, but it seemed hollow and disconnected from the music’s religious theme. The myriad false endings in the final movement stretched on interminably.

More of a wild card was the local premiere of Stravinsky’s Funeral Song. The composer wrote the piece in 1908 to memorialize his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, but it was lost for more than a century before being rediscovered in 2015. Only the most flippant would say that it deserved its mothballed place – the music is often arresting, with luscious writing for strings; big, expressive brass chorales; and isolated moments for a variety of instruments (trumpet, oboe, flute) that evoke the magnitude of loss.

Yet this reverent piece doesn’t convey the boundary-pushing excitement of Stravinsky that most listeners crave; rather, it finds this Russian master at his most conservative. Similarly, the Philadelphians performed the piece with polished elegance but not much surprise.