Once considered ‘virtually unplayable,’ Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata has been aptly described as ‘The Mount Everest of the Keyboard.’ Even today, only the most intrepid pianists confront its daunting challenge. For Wilhelm Kempff, among its earliest and greatest interpreters, it remains ‘the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote,’ while for Stravinsky the audacity of the final fugue made the Sonata ‘forever contemporary.’ More subjectively, whether you see the central ‘Adagio sostenuto’ as ‘like the heart of some remote mountain lake (J.W.N Sullivan; ‘His Spiritual Development’) or ‘the apotheosis of pain’(Paul Becker), the Sonata’s overwhelming content and colossal four movement stature make it unique. It also makes Weingartner’s orchestration a dilution of its essential keyboard nature. For Charles Rosen it is ‘nonsensical’ while for Denis Mathews it is the equivalent of a helicopter ride to the summit.’

   The Sonata was for long considered beyond the scope of lady pianists who were even more intimidated by the Sonata’s inner life and nature than by its outsize physical demands. Myra Hess, for example, surveyed it from a safe distance and never performed it in public. Given such a context Beatrice Rana’s recording is formidable indeed, masterful and audacious in equal measure. She launches the opening Allegro with a shot-from -guns virtuosity and her scorching tempo is of an unstoppable impetus and propulsion. Yet her stillness and rapt contemplation in the ‘Adagio sostenuto’ are even more striking, and after the fitful stop-go introduction to the fugue her playing erupts in a blaze of glory. To say such playing is awe-inspiring is to deal in under-statement.
   Rana’s coupling of Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata is surprising until you realise that both works reflect, In their distinctive ways, the darker side of human experience. Her previous Chopin album of the Four Scherzi and the opus 25 Etudes alerted you to performances of a special recreative vision and character, and here in the Sonata she once again discards all notion of convention or propriety. Her opening Grave tells you that is never going to be the Sonata as you previously knew it, but a work that shocked Chopin’s contemporaries. For Schumann, Chopin had ‘bound four of his maddest children together’ while Mendelssohn was affronted, feeling that this time Chopin had gone too far; ‘as music I abhor it.’ For Chopin the finale was of ‘two voices chattering in unison’ leaving others to speak of ‘winds whistling over graveyards’ and, more fancifully, of ‘a network of rooks in the twilight.’ Many turned away in horror from music which, to repeat Stravinsky’s quote on Beethoven, is ‘forever contemporary.’ Few works have prompted a wider variety of Reponses.  There is Wilhelm Kempff, confiding his secrets and leaving others to take Chopin by storm, Rachmaninov’s raging alternative to Chopin’s prescribed ‘sotto voce’ or the menacing half-pedalled film or gauze drawn across the whirling figuration by Martha Argerich. Stephen Kovacevich once confessed to me that he felt defeated by this frightening enigma, unable to come up with a convincing answer.  Beatrice Rana has no such hesitation. Her approach is startling and revelatory as she sets spectral references to previous themes chasing after each other, surfacing and vanishing in a hair-raising hallucinatory evocation.

   But whether in Beethoven or Chopin, in two formidable peaks of the repertoire, Beatrice Rana will leave you shocked into a renewed sense of both composer’s stature and audacity.


Bryce Morrison