CAMBRIDGE — As so often happens to young people with remarkable aptitude for an instrument, the mixed-blessing label “prodigy” has been frequently affixed to 26-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana. But for her ongoing recital tour of the United States, the 2013 Van Cliburn medalist hasn’t chosen what we’ve come to think of as prodigious repertoire. Instead, she’s curated a thoughtful collection of Chopin, Ravel, and for the big Russian finale, her countryman Guido Agosti’s piano transcription of music from Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”
More importantly, she doesn’t play like many prodigies, with a tense static current running between hands and keyboard. Making her Boston area debut at Longy School of Music’s Pickman Hall Wednesday night, she approached the piano like a lifelong friend to whom she had nothing to prove.
Starting with the first delicate steps, which dipped in as if testing the water, she took a melodically driven approach to Chopin’s Études, Book II. With disarming grace, she deliberately passed over opportunities for fireworks, and offsetting bounteous harmonies and countermelodies by subtle dynamic shifts and shading. The buzzing, busy thirds in Etude No. 6 flowed as a single sentence, as did the “winter winds” of Etude No. 11, which never descended into bluster, but almost imperceptibly lulled at points. Frequently, she sustained the final notes, making each etude seem an organic offshoot of the previous. The sound of the grand piano sometimes skewed toward bottom heaviness, which stood out in contrast with the ear-catching filigree she traced in higher ranges.
The recital moved through its pieces in chronological order. After intermission, Ravel’s set of five rhythmically mercurial “Miroirs” pulsed like a living landscape. The room seemed to expand as “Oiseaux tristes” took a wander through the lower end of the keyboard. Sans the earlier weightiness, the sound took on new heights and dimensions, and the isolated high notes shone. Sunlight imbued “Une barque sur l’océan,” as a sparkling right-hand figure evoked its dance on water.
As the evening progressed, so the music intensified. Rana’s physical entanglement with the music matched its pace, peaking in the “Firebird” suite, a brilliant and mindbreakingly difficult 1928 transcription of three movements from Stravinsky’s ballet. Dropping straight into the first figure of the “Danse infernale” from standing, she went all out.
With the myriad timbres of the orchestra distilled to a single instrument, the transcription doesn’t stand on its own easily, demanding a spectacular performer. Rana’s approach served it well; she didn’t try to make it anything but what it was, never trying to imitate the orchestra but throwing her whole self into the pianistic possibilities of the frenzied “Danse,” the pensive “Berceuse,” and the triumphal finale. The edges of the eighty-eight keys blurred under her touch; out of one came many, and out of many came one.
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. Feb. 27. Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music, Cambridge. www.celebrityseries.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.