When Beatrice Rana was 13 years old, the great pianist Krystian Zimerman came to her tiny hometown in Italy to give a recital. The event had a profound effect on Rana. It was not that she realized, like a bolt from the blue, that she wanted to be a pianist; the daughter of two pianists, Rana had played her first scale when she was 6 months old and was picking out songs from Disney movies at the keyboard at age 2. That music would be the focus of her life — indeed, almost indistinguishable from her life — was already apparent.
What she found truly astonishing about the recital was the mesmeric way in which Zimerman became the conduit for the music’s expression, and in so doing, wholly absorbed the audience’s focus and caused everything else to fall away.
“This was a revelation,” Rana said recently, speaking via FaceTime before a rehearsal in Zurich. “Afterwards I was shocked, because I didn’t move my eyes from him for the complete recital. At that point I realized, that’s how I want to be onstage. I want people not to look at anything else and just to be in the music the whole time, through me as a musician.”
It’s perhaps due in part to that early experience that the 26-year-old Rana, who makes her Boston recital debut in a sold-out Feb. 27 Celebrity Series of Boston concert, has little interest in presenting herself as a prodigy trafficking in attention-grabbing fare. Make no mistake: She can do that stuff perfectly well, as a 2015 recording of two demanding concertos — Tchaikovsky’s First and Prokofiev’s Second — amply shows.
But, she said during the conversation, “sometimes we young people are only seen as virtuosos. Always playing Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. I didn’t want to be identified only with that repertoire, which I love. There is something more.”
For that something more, look instead to her beautifully shaped recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from 2017. There is an almost reflexive tendency to look askance at young musicians tackling such forbidding repertoire so early in their careers, as though they couldn’t have lived with this music long enough to have something valuable to say about it. But the poise and elegance of Rana’s playing speaks to her deep familiarity with the piece, as does her ability to find connections within and between individual variations.
In fact, she has been living with the Goldbergs since age 10. “Every week I was bringing one variation to play for my teacher. Week by week I started to learn it.” She found her parents’ copy of Glenn Gould’s iconic 1955 recording of the piece, which was “one of those shocking things for me. Because I always listened to this kind of polite Bach. And suddenly I listened to this recording and I couldn’t believe my ears. I fell in love with it. So it’s a long history with this piece.”
The subtlety and nuance of her Bach playing came to mind when I asked Rana about the technical challenges of learning the piano repertoire. She answered by saying, essentially, that there hadn’t been any. “I don’t want to sound immodest,” she said, “but I never found anything really difficult.” But, she added, “to play a piece is so much more. You have to practice the intention, the direction, the structure — everything. There is a world besides the notes.”
She finds Beethoven sonatas particularly difficult in this respect — particularly the “Appassionata,” which she reckons to have practiced the most. “I never played it in public because I was never satisfied with it. I could play the notes, but I felt that I wasn’t getting it right. You think that once you get all the notes, then you’re done. But it’s not. That’s the interesting thing in our job, and sometimes, in this case, the very frustrating thing.”
As for her recital program, she conceived of it as a sort of miniature history of piano writing, beginning with Chopin’s Etudes (Op. 25), which she values less for their surface brilliance than for the fact that they represent “the perfect combination of technical skills at the service of music. Chopin was really the first composer and pianist to try to develop his own technique, [and] he wrote the etudes, really, to make people understand it.”
From there the piano turns outward to Ravel’s “Miroirs,” in which, she said, an orchestral vision lurks behind the “three-dimensional sound” of the composer’s writing. That expansiveness is reversed in the final work: a solo piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet score “The Firebird,” in which the orchestral sound is telescoped into a single instrument. Difficult to play? Sure. Typically for her, though, that was the least interesting thing about it.
“It is challenging,” Rana said, “but at the same time it gives a different freedom. Because I can allow myself moments of freedom that are not really possible with an orchestra. So at some point I become the conductor of myself.”