English profiles

Rotterdam,   November 2023

‘That’s the right answer for an Italian!’ says Beatrice Rana as she asks me whether I want a big or a small cup of black coffee (I asked for the former), shortly before the start of our interview in one of the beautiful dressing rooms of De Doelen in Rotterdam. 

Willem Boone (WB): Thank you  for your Rachmaninoff, Beatrice! I truly enjoyed it.. What I really liked was that it was so a-sentimental. People can overdo Rachmaninoff sometimes.
Beatrice Rane (BR): Thank you, I think as someone who grew up loving this concerto, it can be very tempting to be self-indulgent with this music, as it is so beautiful. Not only the melodies, but also the harmonies are sheer pleasure for every musician. I remember when I first heard Rachmaninoff play this concerto, I was absolutely shocked at how not self-indulgent he was. He was always going for it, going ahead, not stopping at every note, but he had this strong sense of direction. It made me think, because if he was playing this way and he was the composer, the urge must have been there. This piece was written at the end of a dark period for him, I think you can see that the piano represents Rachmaninoff himself, fighting against the orchestra and his circumstances. I really feel this wants to get out and this is what I tried to do with my interpretation.

WB: Is Rachmaninoff your model in this concerto?
BR: Yes, of course there are great interpretations by great pianists. I was inspired by many others, but when I heard him, the concerto became something else than the usual piece with nice things. Not just the Hollywood-music, but something deeper than that. 

WB: A colleague of yours, Yefim Bronfman, once said: ‘His interpretation was actually cold, and because of that, it was very hot and passionate’!
BR (enthuses): Yes, exactly, it is something that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you say it, but it is true. This music is so warm, it is like hot chocolate, but if you swim and do too much, then you die in it. It requires a lot of strength to get in the right direction.

WB: Do you play the Third Piano Concerto too?
BR: I have played it only once, but it is in my plans to play it more often.
WB: I have spoken to other piansts like Leif Ove Andsnes and Yevgeny Sudbin and they both said – which surprised me – that the Second is sometimes more difficult than the Third or, at least, it’s very tricky?
BR: In a way I agree, but of course the Third is technically more difficult. It is true that the difficulties in this concerto are more pianistic. In the Second, the difficult passages are really difficult, there are a few spots that are uncomfortable for the piano. I think that the main problem is to understand what is going on, everything together with the orchestra. Architecture wise, it’s a very difficult concerto. 

WB: It was a beautiful performance. The conductor did beautiful things with the orchestra too.
BR: I think it is great that we got to play the concerto three times, so we really got to know each other. This orchestra has a wonderful sound for Rachmaninoff, the strings have such and deep and dark sound. It’s the darkness that Rachmaninoff experienced in his life. And with the brass and the beautiful wind solos, I was really inspired by the orchestra.

WB: Yes, I can imagine. The orchestra advertised for this concert and they said this about you: ‘She combines the best of Maria Joao Pires and Martha Argerich: the heavenly and the earthly and the spiritual poetry of Pires and the indomitable energy of Argerich. That sounds promising for her performance of ‘Rach 2’ where heaven and earth meet eachother.’ What do you think of this comment?
BR: (laughs): I think you should tell me what you think, I can’t judge! 
WB: But are you flattered or are you annoyed?
BR: Luckily you’ve told me now and not before the concert, I didn’t know the orchestra said this about me! (laughs).
WB: It was announced on their website.
BR: I haven’t checked it out, but of course, I am flattered that people have written this about me. Pires and Argerich are both incredible artists, but I think at the same time, it’s important to be yourself. I am flattered by the comparison..
WB: I could imagine that it also puts a strain on you..
BR: That’s why I don’t check out websites. (laughs)

WB: I have a few questions about an interview you gave five years ago to one of the leading Dutch newspapers, NRC Handelsblad, before your first recital in Amsterdam. You said: ‘There is a tendency that musicians want to play flawlessly, but mistakes are part of life and sometimes they are even liberating.’ I was thinking: in what way is it liberating: does it make you feel more human?
BR: Sometimes it’s liberating because our profession is a performing profession. It’s not just an art. It’s not about making art away from the audience, you do it in front of the public, so the performance aspect is incredibly important. Of course, we are humans, so sometimes we are nervous. I practise a lot to not making mistakes and sometimes when you go on stage and you are nervous, to just make a mistake is very liberating. You feel: ‘Okay, now I’ve made my mistake, it had to come somehow and now I can stop worrying about mistakes and focus on the music.’ However, I’ve changed a lot compared to five years ago, my approach to the stage moment is different now.
WB: And what has changed?
BR: Well, I have played many more concerts during these five years and I didn’t play because of the pandemic either. Somehow the idea of not taking the audience for granted made me reflect on how important the communication with the audience is. It was awful to play without a public.

WB: Did you miss it?
BR: Very much so, yes. As I said, we are performing artists and at that time, we were performing for no-one. It was very sad and depressing. It is true that we give a lot to the stage, but the audience gives us a lot as well.
WB: Did you manage to keep practising?
BR: I have to say that it was very depressing at first, I was very shocked, but then it is in human nature to adapt to the circumstances. Every human being can adapt even to the worst things. We now adapt to the idea of war and genocide, it’s crazy because that shouldn’t happen with certain things. So I tried to deal with the pandemic circumstances and I took advantage of it, because I have been used to a very busy concert schedule since I was a teenager. At first, it didn’t know what to do and then I found that intimate contact with music and the instrument without the necessity to practize for a concert again. I was just practising for myself and that was a feeling I hadn’t experienced for a long time. 

WB: And how was it to start playing again?
BR: (whispers) Terrible…I was very nervous! I remember it was a concert in Spain, because in that country concert halls weren’t closed down in 2021. I had a duo concert with violinist Renaud Capuçon. I was very nervous and I looked at him to find out that he was very nervous too. We felt like kids but we had been doing that for our life! Somehow, it was a strange feeling.

WB: About making mistakes: can it be frustrating too that you practize a lot and can sometimes only give 60% of your potential?
BR: No, I wouldn’t say that, in concert you give much more than in the practise room. When you practise, you have everything under control, the good thing is that you don’t have everything under control in a concert hall. That’s the most inspirational moment: when you let the music go, you leave it free. You know the music and yourself better.

WB: Do you surprise yourself in concerts?
BR: Sometimes I don’t know why I do certain things, because I never thought of it before. It just comes from the inspiration of the moment. That’s what I like so much, sometimes it’s good, sometimes not really, but at least there is something that is alive.
WB: But you are not like Mikhail Pletnev who said: ‘When I make a mistake, I physically suffer from it’?
BR: I think everybody suffers because of mistakes (laughs). Well, maybe the word ‘suffer’ is too strong..
WB: If you really feel physical pain..
BR: There are different kinds of mistakes: stupid ones when you ask yourself ‘Why did I do that?’ and less stupid ones that still make you suffer.

WB: Another question from that same interview, it was your teacher who said: ‘The pianist is an illusionist.’ You said: ‘The image remains our greatest ally’ I asked myself whether that doesn’t go for any artist, so for painters and dancers too?
BR: Yes and no, because music is the only art that is not too visual. Of course, you can watch the performance, but music comes through the ears. Since it is such a universal and yet personal language, everyone can understand something different from what you do. The same source, the same sound can inspire two completely different images. I think that music is really the art that gives the most ambiguity in the performance moment. If you are go to an exhibit or a dance performance, or if you read a poem, there is always something concrete to look at, but with music there is not. Of course, every art goes against human beings: dancers fight against gravity and everyone has something to fight against. With the piano, you fight against the fact that it is a percussion instrument. Basically we don’t have legato, it is not within in the abilities of the instrument, so our goal is to create the illusion.

WB: You said something else that I found interesting: ‘The piano takes many forms, it is not often itself, but it evokes or imitates another instrument or an orchestra, a singer, a string player, a wind instrument. The grand piano speaks an intangible language, sometimes it paints the magic of light and darkness like Caravaggio or sometimes it’s like Manet.’ Would you call that a weakness or a strength of the piano?
BR: Both! 
WB: And what is the strength then?
BR: That it can be anything, no other instrument can be like that.
WB: And the weakness is that you can’t shape the sound the way you want?
BR: The worst part is that the piano shouldn’t sound like the piano (laughs) or at least in the bad sense as a percussion instrument, as I said before. It shouldn’t sound like the way it is reallly built. 

WB: And what image do you try to hold on to, are you imitating the human voice or a string player?
BR: It depends on the piece I am playing: in Chopin there is a lot of inspiration from the human voice and the opera. With Liszt, there is a strong orchestra influence.
WB: I asked a Dutch pianist what he thought about this quote and he said that the piano is like bread, you can eat it with anything..
BR: We don’t have breath with the piano and that is terrible. It is a big limitation for pianists. Even with string players, there is a movement of the bow.

WB: Claudio Arrau once said: ‘You shouldn’t be afraid of being boring’
BR: (laughs): That’s also what my teacher said! 
WB: Do you agree?
BR: Yes, I do. Our main preoccupation is to be boring and sometimes it is a mistake. 

WB: I have a few questions regarding the Piano Concerto by Clara Wieck that you recorded. She said about her Piano Trio that many considered as her best work, but then she also said: ‘Of course, it always remains the work of a woman who lacks power and invention.’ These are her own words, but it is not the best recommendation for your own works, is it?
BR: If she had said something good about her works, she wouldn’t have stopped composing, in my personal opinion she was an absolute genius. Maybe she was even more into playing than composing, but I have always admired her as a figure in the musical world. It was amazing that she toured through Europe with a lot of children at home. She was a revolutionary figure for the world in that time. When I started to practise the Piano Concerto, I had the strong feeling of the musical mind she had. It was composed when she was 14 years old, she was incredibly young. The work is full of imagination and the piano is really like an opera diva with the orchestra. There are lots of moments where the piano is in the spot lights. Not only does it shows the incredible virtuosity that she had, a very peculiar one, but it is also  a revolutionary concerto. First of all, there is no interruption between the second and third movements, it’s like Mendelssohn.

WB: Was he a model for her?
BR: No, I would say that she was closer to the Chopin concerto in E-minor and what is absolutely amazing is that she writes a second movement for piano and cello alone, it is like a romance for both instruments. This gives a dimension of how limitless she was, she would go from the symphonic dimension to chamber music, no one had done that before her. 
WB: I read somewhere that Schumann did the same in his Piano Concerto. Is there a duet for piano and cello in it?
BR: With Clara, there is only one cello, in Robert’s concerto, there is a big solo for cellos and then later, of course, in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. 

WB: Did Schumann support her as a composer?
BR: Yes, he did, it was very different from the Mendelssohns. Felix was completely against his sister Fanny composing music, but with Robert, I really feel this couple was ahead of their time. Women are often their own worst enemies! When Clara got married, it is very interesting, because they published a series of lieder in the same book, under both names. This shows how ahead of his time Robert was.
WB: Which opus is that?
BR: I don’t remember the opus number, it was published in their wedding year, ‘Widmung’ was one of the Lieder.
WB: Ah, is the cycle called ‘Myrthen’?
BR: I don’t know whether it’s the whole Myrthen, I am not sure. 

WB: Does she write well for piano?
BR: Very difficult, she had very strange hands. It is tricky.
WB: Because the piano works by Schumann are..
BR: ..very uncomfortable! 
WB: You said ‘the enormous power of the dramatic personality is very present’, in what way was she dramatic?
BR: She was very dramatic. She was a very strong woman with strong ideas and also faced hefty expectations from others, she was a tough woman! It comes across in her music..

WB: I also read that Schumann uses melodies from her in the third movement in his Piano Concerto. Is that true?
BR: With a couple, it’s always an exchange. There are lots of pieces that Schumann wrote with themes from Clara, like the Davidsbuendlertanze. It is not written, but the first part is completely Clara. It is always a mutual exchange.
WB: A friend of mine who is a pianist said the main theme in the first movement of Schumann’s Concerto, it’s her?
BR: Yes, it starts with a C and then A A, Clara.
WB: Does it mean that he refers to her as a musical motive? Was she the one who composed it?
BR: No, he wrote it, but he was always inspired by her, always. It was also, because his works were played by her, she was the pianist

WB: Do you often get the chance to play the Wieck Piano Concerto?
BR: Yes, many times. This season, I will be playing it with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Yannick, I will also play it in Luzern. It is wonderful to see the audience respond to the concerto.
WB: And you couldn’t play it in Rotterdam?
BR: Well, I can’t always play the same concerto (laughs)
WB: No, but were you asked for this concert to play the Rachmaninoff or were you the one who suggested it?
BR: I think I suggested it, but I don’t remember exactly.
WB: No, but since the Wieck Concerto is hardly every played.. There will be a Russian pianist who will play it in the Netherlands soon.
BR: I think it is becoming more popular, but people don’t really know this concerto.

WB: Do you plan to revive other unknown piano concertos?
BR: It is interesting to do, also because of the process to learn unknown concertos..there are not many interpretations of it, so there is a lot of freedom.

WB: True, I have a few questions about your compatriot Maurizio Pollini. In the same interview from which I quoted, you describe the first time you heard him and that he had received a lot of bad reviews, in which people complained that he made so many mistakes. However you said: ‘I liked his unique sound and the dark energy that never erupted, the obsessive drive, he taught me that it is not about technical perfection, but about a vision.’
BR: It is always interesting to see what a journalist has made from my words…
WB: You haven’t been correctly quoted?
BR: No, I understood what I said, but it is not exact: it’s difficult to speak about mistakes with Maurizio Pollini. There are some recordings that are astonishing for the technical aspect!. It doesn’t give Pollini enough credits for what he did.

WB: Exactly! I was going to say that the feeling about Pollini for many years was that he was flawless..
BR: It is always the problem with communicating with other people..
WB: I know that there have been even bitchier comments lately, I think he is struggling at the moment with heart problems at the moment. He stopped playing for a while and then he played in London in June and it was a disastrous concert according to reports. There was another concert in Switzerland not long ago. He is of course a legendary figure in the world of music, but isn’t there something of a taboo when someone gets over 80 loses some of his dexterity and technique and people say: ‘Hmm, do you really want to go on?’ Shouldn’t that be the agent’s job?
BR: I hope that there will be someone who loves me at 80 and tells me to stop. It’s not good for you. I believe the stage can be an addition and in a way it is the place where you feel yourself. I realised that it is the place where you express yourself during the pandemic. It was important to get back to the stage and remind yourself who you are. I imagine that it must be terrible at some point to stop, but a pianist, Ashkenazy, I believe, told me: ‘I prefer to regret myself, rather than the others to see me on stage.’ I admire people like Brendel a lot who understand when to stop, but there are miracles like Martha Argerich, who is 82..

WB: That’s correct, but she’s an exception!
BR: Yes, she is an exception
WB: I heard her twice one month ago with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and someone of my age (60) couldn’t have played better! I just don’t understand where she gets it from? She is very consistent in her pianism and her approach: she played fantastically at 20, 40, 60, 80..
BR: It is a transcendental virtuosity that goes beyond the physical.

WB: There are not many pianists over 80. Aldo Ciccolini is another example.
BR: He was fantastic!
WB: Cherkassky played superbly too, almost until the end of his life.
BR: I haven’t heard him, but I met Ciccolini and I remember the control of sound he had.
WB: He was so frail, but when he was seated at the piano, he was like a young man! Very economical in his movements and so are you by the way!
BR: We are from the same school, my teacher and my dad studied with Ciccolini.
WB: Would you say there is an Italian piano school?
BR: Yes, definitely, the school to which I belong is south-italian, it’s very strong and consistent. Ciccolini was from the same kind of school.
WB: Busoni too?
BR: No, he was from another school. It’s interesting, because people from abroad see Italians as ‘terra lucie vino’, a sunny country, but funnily enough, the piano school is a very scientific school. Busoni was of course a great connoisseur of the piano, Michelangeli had a scientific approach and so has Pollini towards Chopin. 
WB: Maria Tipo?
BR: Yes, of course, it’s a very big tradition.

WB: How do you see someone like Michelangeli?
BR: How do I see him? What a question (laughs)
WB: To me, he is like a mystery… Is he a God for you, he too had an incredible perfection, but what he did was very beautiful.
BR: In a way, he was a bit untouchable. He is not human as Pollini, I wonder what Michelangeli would do now in terms of life and career. What I love about him was how limited his repertoire was: how much depth and height could he reach with his repertoire? Now, it’s a problem if you don’t have enough of a repertoire, so yes, he was a model for me.
WB: There are a few things that nobody plays like him, like in Chopin’s Andante Spianato you have the same note four times, and when I heard him play it, they sounded like church bells and nobody has the same sound. 
BR: So, he is an illusionist (laughs)

WB: I have a few questions about your current recital programme, although I am not sure whether you are already performing it now. I was intrigued  by a piece by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, I thought he as mainly known for his guitar music?
BR: You are a guitar player, no?(She points to a splint that I wear to support the trigger finger in the right hand, WB)
WB: No, I injured that finger, but I don’t play the guitar. I am just a bad amateur pianist…
BR: Yes, he is known in the guitar world, because they don’t have as much of a repertoire as we pianists of course. He is also famous because of his movie music. He emigrated to America and composed a lot of music for movies. The piece I play is very beautiful, ‘Cipressi’ are trees grown in Italy in cemetaries, they symbolise death and eternity. In this case, it was a memory from childhood for him, because he had this house where there were cipressi. This composition is very visionary and I hope you can come to my recital. I didn’t know it and I heard it on CD. It reminded me of Debussy. You will hear it, the combination of Debussy and Castelnuovo-Tedesco is very interesting 

WB: How do you compose a recital programme like this, because you also play Scriabin and Liszt?
BR: Well, the starting point was the Liszt sonata, which is a true masterpiece. Of course, I don’t need to explan why it is a masterpiece. In a way I wanted to create a first half that would be a preparation for the second half. The Liszt sonata is like a novel in three big chapters: there is the tragedy, the drama, the devil and God. There is a very dramatic beginning: the presentation of the drama and then there is – I said it simply– the middle part that is very meditative, the third part is about escaping from the evil, the salvation and ascension. I wanted to recreate these three moments in the first half, but with different composers: the drama in the Fantasy of Scriabin, the meditation in the Cipressi by Castelnuovo- Tedesco and the final part of Debussy finishes with l’Isle joyeuse. I try to create these emotional journeys through music, I want the concert to be inspirational for the audience. It’s funny, because I played this recital last month and there are people who found connections between pieces that I didn’t notice myself. Everyone catches something different. 

WB: I once saw you play with your sister, is she a cellist? I really liked your performance of Mendelssohn I believe it was. Are you going to play more often together?
BR: Yes, in fact, we have some concerts together next year. I love playing with my sister.
WB: It is a beautiful sonata, there are two actually…
BR: Indeed, it was the D-major and yes, it’s an amazing piece. It’s just difficult, because there are so many notes (laughs). Actually, it was a gift from the COVID pandemic. We spent time in the same house and she said: ‘Now you don’t have any escape!’ (laughs). I always said no, because there are so many notes.
WB: I think the Rachmaninov cello sonata is even worse?
BR: The Chopin cello sonata is worse still I think…
WB: They were all good pianists!
BR: That’s the problem! (laughs).

WB: I have a few questions about an interview with Andras Schiff I read. He said that live music sounds different from a CD. In a concert hall, you can’t decide on the tempo and sometimes you play differently or you play with more or less pedal. And then he says that you control with your third, imagenary ear, because two is not enough. Do you recognize that?
BR: It’s very well said, as always with Schiff, who is such an intelligent musician. The third ear is related to the recording, did I understand that correctly?
WB: Yes, that’s correct.
BR: The problem is, as I said at the beginning of our interview, that our profession is a performer’s profession. The moment is very important. You change what you do, because of something different: you want to catch the attention of the audience, you want to say something differently, it has everything to do with the inspiration of the moment. With a recording, of course, it is very different: it must be inspired, but it must be inspired in the way that it is related to something that can last more. The problem is also that communication to the audience is not direct, as it is in a concert hall. There is me and you and nothing in between, but there are so many obstacles with a CD: the microphone, technology. It is about finding a direct link to the listener that goes beyond the moment. Of course, it is possible to make a recording that lasts forever. When I started recording, it was very frustrating, I would change my ideas about certain details two or three months later. 

WB: Do you make long takes when you record?
BR:  Yes, also, but it depends on the piece. I just recorded the Hammerklavier sonata and I did the third movement in one take. Sometimes it is difficult to find the flow again. In a way, I accept that a recording is just a photo of a certain moment. It is a good photo of course, but it is not like a live recording that can be improved or changed, it is something that refers to that moment.
WB: I was wondering this afternoon: are you always aware of what you do while playing?
BR: No… I wish it was good (laughs)
WB: I am not saying you are doing it on autopilot, it’s not that, but do you hear it or is it as if you are sitting elsewhere and you hear yourself play?
BR: No, that never happens, it would be impossible. What can I say? The self-awareness in a concert moment is always related to your expectations, so what comes out is always related to that. The judgment at the end is not the real one, but it is always a very personal one. That’s why I sometimes play and think: it was a terrible concert, but someone might come to see me and say it was wonderful.

WB: And when you feel bad and someone says it was great, does it lift you up or are you still depressed?
BR: It depends on who says it. We’re always very hard on ourselves.
WB: I do amateur acting and my theatre group normally puts on plays. Last summer, I played in a short movie that was filmed by a good amateur group. What struck me is that you can start with the last page and end with the first page, since almost every single sentence was filmed in a separate take. I think if you do that with a CD, you completely lose the idea of ….
BR: That is exactly what happens with a CD, that’s why making good CD’s is another kind of profession. It’s another form of art, it’s completely different.

WB: Are you still happy with your first CD? You had such guts playing the Second Prokofiev Concerto!
BR: The good thing is that I recognise myself, but I would probably play differently now. It also depends on the repertoire. Unfortunately I didn’t play the Prokofiev much after the recording..
WB: It is a beast!
BR: Yes, but it is a pity, I really liked to play it, but it didn’t happen. I’m happier with the Prokofiev than with the Tchaikovsky, which I performed so many times. I still play it a lot and constantly change my ideas about it. It keeps evolving.

WB: In the same interview with Schiff, he was asked what music actually meant to him. He said that it was very difficult to answer, it comes from silence and it ends with silence. If I ask you, is there a way you can answer that question or is it something you can’t answer because it’s music and not words?
BR: Indeed, it’s very difficult to answer what music means to you. It means everything, it has always been part of my life. There was no moment when I decided to become a musician or that I started playing the piano. It has always been with me. I would say something very different: there is never silence in my brain. Somehow music is my best friend, the best and the worst company when you need silence. It is a very strange relationship but for sure, it is the strongest relationship in my life (laughs).
WB: But it is still fulfilling after all?
BR: Yes, fulfilling maybe if you think about music in a professional way. For me, it is also a profession. It is what opens my mind every day, an endless source of inspiration. The most astonishing thing is that there is music everywhere: in nature, in everything. You go hiking in the mountains and you hear Mahler, you go to the beach and you hear Debussy and Ravel. It is all around us, it’s just a way to look at the world. That’s why I say it is the best company, because you recognize that. It is also my worst enemy sometimes…..but again, it is the strongest relationship I can imagine!