Beatrice Rana © Nicolas Bets
Beatrice Rana
© Nicolas Bets

Beatrice Rana has been performing in public for nearly two-thirds of her life to date. Only nine when she made her debut in her native Italy, the acclaimed pianist launched her international career with a series of spectacular competition triumphs and other distinctions, including the Silver Medal at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013. Yet Rana takes nothing for granted. She approaches each live performance as a new opportunity to communicate in the way that matters most to her.

“Whenever we go onstage, we have to give everything to the audience,” Rana told me during a recent interview after rehearsing Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Despite the practical issues that inevitably crop up during a tour – travel delays, getting used to a different hall, readjusting to a last-minute change in conductor – the act of communicating with the audience must take precedence.

This was Rana’s second guest visit with the Seattle Symphony. She has been traveling a great deal from her home base in Rome in recent seasons. North America in particular has proved to be a magnet: it was there that Rana’s competition victories set her career on its stellar trajectory.

“It feels so natural to return to the United States ever since the Cliburn Competition. I love coming back here because I love the audience in the US,” Rana says. So it’s not surprising that she singles out her interaction with the audience who followed her Cliburn performances as one of her favorite memories from the competition experience, where, in addition to her Silver Medal, Rana won the Audience Award.

“It’s a very specific kind of audience. They know all these young pianists come into town and have practiced so hard, and they want to give their support. It was already six years ago that I was competing and there’s been a new round of winners since then. [The most recent competition, the 15th edition, took place in 2017.] But whenever I go back to Dallas, so many still come to greet me. This emotional support is so much needed in these situations.”

Rana’s first major competition experience had occurred only two years before the Cliburn, in 2011, when she took first prize plus the special jury prizes (as well as Radio Canada People’s Choice Award) at the Concours musical international de Montréal. Then 18, Rana became the youngest winner in the history of that competition, which rotates each year among the disciplines of piano, violin, and voice.

It may sound paradoxical, but that decisive stamp of approval only intensified the pressure Rana says she felt when she became one of the elite few selected to take part in the 14th Van Cliburn International Competition. “Montreal was my first major competition, so I was more relaxed in Canada,” the pianist recalls. But the fact that she was awarded first prize also burdened Rana with expectations of how she was to perform at her next competition.

“I remember those days in Texas as being charged emotionally,” she says. “At the same time, the fantastic thing about the Cliburn Competition is that it takes place in the Bass Performance Hall on a large stage with a huge crowd. It feels very much like you are giving a concert, which makes it easy to forget that you are in a competition.”

Beatrice Rana at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition © Ralph Lauer | The Cliburn
Beatrice Rana at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
© Ralph Lauer | The Cliburn

Rana’s experiences in Fort Worth occurred just months after the Cliburn’s namesake died: the legendary pianist passed away in February 2011, at the age of 78. In the same year, Jacques Marquis, who had helmed the Montreal Competition when Rana earned her victory there, began his tenure as President and CEO of the Van Cliburn Foundation.

Having just reached the age of 20 that year, Rana impressed the jury as well as the dedicated Cliburn audience with her naturalness, warmth, and deep musical intelligence. Gramophone critic Jed Distler judged her to be “the most naturally gifted and original of the 2013 Cliburn winners,” concluding that “Beatrice Rana possesses an old soul that belies her 20 years, and more than a touch of genius.”

In 2017, Gramophone named Rana its Young Artist of the Year. That’s merely one of the prestigious awards she has earned since her triumphs at the 2013 Competition. Her debut release after she was signed to Warner Classics as an exclusive recording artist included the work she played on her final Cliburn concert – Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. During that climactic event at the competition, in the final movement, the highest D string on Rana’a Hamburg Steinway broke. “I was not nervous at all,” she was reported saying soon after. “When you know you’re playing for the last time, you want to take advantage of every second in this performance, to enjoy every moment.”

Rana followed that recording with an account of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (2017) – hailed by many critics as a substantial contribution to the work’s vast performance history – and just this month released an album of Ravel (Miroirs and La valse) and Stravinsky transcriptions (Petrushka and The Firebird). She also takes a serious interest in new music and commissioned a brief piece from Luca Francesconi for a recital tour that she premiered in 2017. Titled Driven by Tears and inspired by her piano style, it was written to serve as a prelude to Rana's performances of Liszt’s B minor Sonata. In 2017 she additionally premiered a new piano concerto by Carlo Boccadoro (dedicated to the memory of Duke Ellington) with Riccardo Chailly and the Filarmonica della Scala.

Rana’s vast curiosity is matched by a seemingly limitless technique – she mentions wanting to prepare the rarely played Book Three of Isaac Albéniz's Iberia for her next tour – yet she emphasizes the importance of approaching repertoire at the time that is right for her as an artist. Take the Appassionata Sonata. Rana has indeed played Beethoven’s revolutionary score many times for herself, yet she insists that she remains unsatisfied with her interpretation and therefore withholds it from public performance for the time being.

“It never comes out the way I would like it to,” she explains. This is not a question of technique. “Maybe it’s because I need more time to understand this music, which I love so much. I want to play it with the dignity it deserves. Of course, there is always room for improvement with everything. But I think it is a mistake to try to force a connection that is not there. This is not healthy and as pianists we have an immense repertoire we can choose from.”

With the music of Robert Schumann, on the other hand, Rana has long felt herself at home. Her Cliburn repertoire included two early solo works of his as well as the Piano Quintet for her chamber music round. Listening to her Schumann Concerto with the Seattle Symphony proved nothing short of revelatory. Rana’s grasp of Schumann’s poetry gave her phrasing depth and naturalness and she unlocked rarely noticed subtleties, particularly in her articulation of the finale’s rhythmic profile.

In Seattle, Rana was performing for the first time under the baton of Peter Oundjian, who filled in at the last minute when the scheduled guest conductor became ill. The partnership worked very well indeed. After her first rehearsal, the pianist noted how pleasurable it was to work with a chamber size orchestra – the strings were reduced to approximate the number from Schumann’s time – because “this is a concerto that needs lots of interaction and listening by everyone.”

Beatrice Rana at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition © Ralph Lauer | The Cliburn
Beatrice Rana at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
© Ralph Lauer | The Cliburn

What accounts for the intensity of Rana’s attraction to Schumann? “I think it comes from the mix of so many things: there is a love for the past, with the background of Bach and his interest in counterpoint, but on the other hand there is a romantic way to approach this music. “Romantic” here in the sense that is not just about emotions, but about the struggle that is inside the composer, the struggle between Eusebius and Florestan: this inner duality that coexists in music is what has always fascinated me about Schumann.” She adds that “there has never been someone like him. His understanding of contemporary composers like Chopin or Liszt or Mendelssohn, the intelligence of his criticism, is so amazing.”

Part of Rana’s process for interpreting musical texts like the Schumann Concerto is to delve deeply into primary documents, in this case the diaries jointly kept by Robert and Clara Schumann. “In the diaries, you can see how Clara directed the choices of Robert, how they interacted.”

Earlier this year, Rana programmed some of Clara’s own music as part of the chamber music festival she directs, “Classiche Forme”, which takes place in summer in Lecce, in Apulia, the region of Southern Italy in the heel of the boot where she was born into a family of musicians. Both of her parents are professional pianists and her younger sister Ludovica, with whom Rana concertizes, is gaining recognition as a gifted cellist.

Among the 30 contestants during the 2013 Cliburn Competition, Rana points out that six came from Italy. “We are known as an opera country, but there is a great tradition of teaching piano in Italy as well.” What she learned from her first important piano mentor, Benedetto Lupo (who taught her at the Nino Rota Conservatory in Monopoli) was honesty above all: “To be honest to the score, to myself as a performer and to the audience I play for. It’s always tempting to put yourself before the composer. But I learned from him that you can be honest with what is written in the score and still be honest to yourself, since as pianists we also have a personality to bring to the music.”

Rana later studied at the Conservatory in Hanover, where Arie Vardi – who served on the jury at the 2013 Cliburn – became another lasting influence. “From Vardi I learned generosity,” she says. That means, above all, striving “to make every night the best night. To remember how powerful music can be for the audience that has come to listen.”

Click here to find future concerts featuring Beatrice Rana.

This article was sponsored by the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.