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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
12 Études, Op 25 (1832-36) [32:42]
4 Scherzi (1831-43) [43:05]
Beatrice Rana (piano)
rec. January 2020 (Études) & February 2021 (Scherzi), Teldex Studio, Berlin
WARNER CLASSICS 9029676424 [75:47]

Beatrice Rana has received considerable acclaim for several albums for Warner Classics and has now turned her attention to Chopin’s 12 Études, Op 25 and the 4 Scherzi. Rana was introduced quite late to Chopin’s music by her teacher. I notice that in March 2019 when Rana made her Carnegie Hall debut it was the 12 Études, Op 25 that she chose to play.

This Chopin album is the third release from Rana I have enjoyed reviewing. My first review in 2016 was her splendid first Warner release of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 coupled with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 which made quite an impression on me. The second review was for J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations in which Rana displayed quite stunning form.

Of recordings of the twelve Études, Op 25 I greatly admire the playing of Perahia (rec. 2001, Sony) and Pollini (rec. 1972, Deutsche Grammophon). With the four Scherzi my preferred recordings are those by Rubinstein (rec. 1959, RCA Victor Red Seal Living Stereo) and Simon Trpčeski (rec. 2006 EMI Classics). Nonetheless, Rana excels in both works, too, producing such captivating playing that it stopped me in my tracks. I am not saying that she is better than those esteemed soloists, simply that in these works I appreciate her playing just as much. There is no prescribed way to play Chopin and I definitely enjoy hearing different approaches, relishing how Rana seems to emphasise the Romantic elements of the writing and creating a broad palette of colour. Rana’s formidable technique is striking throughout, a quality exceeded only by her musical acumen and love for the works.

Chopin was only nineteen when he commenced work on his Études, of which there are three sets. Undoubtedly the most significant are the Op 10 (1829-33) and Op 25 (1835-37) sets, each containing twelve pieces. Without an opus number, the third set, known as the Trois Nouvelles Études (1839-40), is not as technically demanding, making twenty-seven Études in total. Described by Berlioz as ‘masterpieces’, Chopin’s Études maintain an enduring appeal for musicians. Despite its title, it is a surprise to discover that Chopin really did intend such high-quality works as the Études as solo piano instruction for students. Each Étude is concerned with a particular detail of technique and Chopin’s genius ensures these are more than merely pieces for didactic instruction. Musicologist Artur Bielecki said of the Études, ‘These works revealed to the world Chopin’s epoch-making discoveries in piano texture, pianistic technique, sound, dynamics and compositional inventiveness.’ Over the years nicknames, that I have listed below, have been given to the majority of Chopin’s Études. Evidently Chopin didn’t use these nicknames and I would take them with a pinch of salt; in fact, only a small number are used today.

Any new recording of the Études encounters fierce competition. Possessing an enduring appeal for musicians, several renowned pianists have recorded sets of the Études. Inevitably many more pianists have chosen to record individual Études rather than complete sets. It’s heartening to see a relative newcomer such as Jan Lisiecki early in his career recording both sets of the Études, Opp 10 & 25, on Deutsche Grammophon.

Here, Beatrice Rana has chosen to record the second set of Études, Op 25, completed shortly before the coronavirus pandemic restrictions. Rana writes that ‘Chopin is reserved, visionary and mysterious… There are many layers to his music. It's pleasing to the ear and sincere in its communication, but the deeper you go, the more you find...’. Every single Étude has its own particular soundworld that makes calls on a number of challenges notably technique, temperament, and expression.

Rana’s playing of a couple of the Études especially stands out. In the Étude No 3 in F major, sometimes known as The Horseman (or Cartwheel / The Knight), Perahia’s rhythms are brisk and fresh. whilst Pollini’s playing has more body than Perahia, yet is not as dramatic. Rana provides strong rhythms creating a distinctive galloping quality. Chopin’s tender side is shown in his Étude No 7 in C-sharp minor marked Lento and sometimes known as the ‘CelloÉtude. Rana takes longer than Perahia and especially Pollini, producing passionate playing of introspective beauty and displaying a melancholy, haunting character.

Following the Études, Rana plays the set of four Scherzi, a noted tour de force of the Romantic piano repertoire. It isn’t known exactly when Chopin commenced writing the first of his four Scherzi but they were published in 1835, while the completion date of the fourth Scherzo is known as 1843.  Although the music term Scherzo literally means ‘joke’, with Chopin his four Scherzi are not amusing or playful; in fact, they are quite the reverse. These innovative, single-movement Scherzi are conspicuous for displaying considerable dramatic incident and emotional temperament. It’s hard to disagree with the similarities often made between the Chopin’s Scherzi and miniature tone-poems. 

Many acclaimed performers have chosen to record the four Scherzi, and it can be difficult to decide on a recording. In addition to Beatrice Rana, other players of the younger generation, notably Benjamin Grosvenor and Seong-Jin Cho, have also recorded the four Scherzi.

I never weary of hearing the Scherzi especially when they are played as admirably as they are here. Without doubt, Rana joins the elevated ranks of recordings from Trpčeski and Rubinstein in this enduringly popular set of Scherzi. Standing out for me is the playing of the first and fourth Scherzi. In the dark and anguished Scherzo No 1 in B minor, Trpčeski almost becomes becalmed in the slow passages, although conversely in the quicker sections he produces an unsettling, stormy character. In Rubinstein’s performance, his slow sections become rather lullaby-like, and the contrasting faster sections aren’t as turbulent as I would like. Rana is the slowest of the three, especially when compared to the Rubinstein account, yet her slow sections feel absolutely right, conveying a glorious, very elegant, prayer-like quality. In sharp contrast, she then produces seriousness and vigour as she adds convincingly to the tension and anguish of the score.

Unlike its three minor-key siblings, the major key Scherzo No 4 largely inhabits a sunny disposition. It’s a work chockful of tone colour and some thrilling moments, and Trpčeski plays with an unflappable elegance. For me, his account evokes an enchanting fairy-tale house, yet evil lurks in the shadows. In Rubinstein’s performance yes there is joy and charm on the surface, yet I’m conscious of an undertow of serious reflection. Such an assured soloist, Rana seems to penetrate right to the heart of the E major score. Thrillingly played, the opening and the closing sections have a bold and inspiring character. In the middle section, Rana produces an absorbing, dreamlike atmosphere that feels like an utterance of absolute love.

Successfully recorded at the Berlin Teldex Studio, Rana benefits from satisfying sound quality which is clear and quite warm. Written by Rana herself, the booklet notes provide a fascinating insight to her interpretations. From the first note to the last, Rana’s dramatic playing certainly holds my attention. Such captivating performances of Chopin as exceptional as these do not come along too often.

Michael Cookson

Étude No 1 in A-flat major, ‘Aeolian Harp’ (1836) [2:41]
Étude No 2 in F minor, ‘The Bees’ (1836) [1:31]
Étude No 3 in F major, ‘The Knight’ (1836) [2:04]
Étude No 4 in A minor, ‘Paganini’ (1832–1834) [1:41]
Étude No 5 in E minor, ‘Wrong Note’ (1832–1834) [3:50]
Étude No 6 in G-sharp minor, ‘Thirds’ (1832–1834) [2:16]
Étude No 7 in C-sharp minor, ‘Cello’ (1836) [5:38]
Étude No 8 in D-flat major, ‘Sixths’ (1832–1834) [1:09]
Étude No 9 in G-flat major, ‘Butterfly’ (1832–1834) [1:02]
Étude No 10 in B minor, ‘Octaves’ (1832–1834) [4:00]
Étude No 11 in A minor, ‘Winter Wind’ (1834) [3:55]
Étude No 12 in C minor, ‘Ocean’ (1836) [2:50]
Scherzo No 1 in B minor, Op 20 (1831–35) [11:04]
Scherzo No 2 in B-flat minor, Op 31 (1836–37) [12:00]
Scherzo No 3 in C-sharp minor, Op 39 (1839–40) [7:58]
Scherzo No 4 in E major, Op 54 (1842–43) [12:03]

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