Beatrice Rana Interview on Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto

“When I was 14, I studied composition... I recognized the kind of enthusiasm I had when I was that age. It made me feel so close to this person while studying the concerto.” ~Beatrice Rana

For the NY Times article, Clara Schumann and Florence Price Get Their Due, I interviewed pianist, Beatrice Rana, who debuted Clara Wieck’s concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra on Oct. 27th, 2022 and at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 28th. She’s a great champion of the work, and I dare anyone to read her words and not come away with more respect for the Wieck concerto.

Here is our FULL conversation.

Sarah Fritz: I can’t wait to hear you play Clara next week. I’m so excited!

Beatrice Rana: Me too. I’m so excited to come to the U.S. to bring this wonderful concerto.

SF: Do you mind if I ask what’s wonderful about it? Tell me.

BR: I think everything is so incredibly surprising with this concerto. First of all, I think it’s quite amazing to realize Clara was 14 when she wrote this concerto, and I was lucky enough to play it with Yannick Nezet- Seguin many times. We discussed about the fact that it should be called Clara Wieck concerto at the time she was not married to Robert. It’s a genius work in many ways. First of all think on the structural level. We think always of the revolutionary writing in Liszt’s concerto or Schumann’s concerto. The Clara concerto is equally revolutionary. If we think of the second mvt, I can’t think of any other composer at the time that wrote such a movement only with piano and cello solo. Its such a way of thinking of music without any kind of limits. To think that it was a young lady, and at the time for female composers, there were so many limits to think at the time that she was able to do something like this – to me, it’s just extraordinary.

And also another thing that’s quite important, when I think of important romantic composers Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, I always think that the way they wrote music was very much reflecting the way that they played the instrument. So the facility of the pianism of Chopin is very much reflected on the music. The virtuosity of Liszt is very much in the music he composed. And on the very same level, this happens also with Clara because you know, I played only very little pieces by Clara before this concerto. But as soon as I approached the reading of the concerto, I immediately realized which kind of virtuosity she had in the hands because it’s a very peculiar writing. You don’t find this kind of writing in Robert or Felix Mendelssohn or someone like that. There is a very strong personality in what she writes.

SF: Can you give anymore details to that? What is peculiar or what is the personality? Or is that really hard to define?

BR: First of all, you can see she was a great virtuoso because what she writes is very challenging for the piano. I think that she had very agile hands because the concerto is full of jumps and very light technique that in a way is very Biedermeier but not in the way Mendelssohn was doing. I think she also had quite big hands because with the position that’s required, the hands of the pianist are very large.

You know in a way it’s very funny when I started to read about this concerto, I realized that she was 14 so basically a teenager. Of course, I don’t want to compare myself, but when I was 14, I studied composition.

SF: *gasp* Did you really?! That’s great!

BR: You know, it’s very funny in a way I recognized the kind of enthusiasm I had when I was that age. It made me feel so close to this person while studying the concerto, because I could feel she was a teenager that, of course, she was used to spending so much time on the piano and also used to improvising, because the concerto is full of these improvisation moments that are so free and so operatic in a way also. I think there are very many aspects that make this concerto so special.

SF: This is invaluable. Thank you so much. I’m so glad to hear you say these things. Thank you. I think you’ve kind of covered this basically but specifically, where do feel it fits in the repertoire compared to the other standard concerti?   

BR: I think that on the emotional level – let’s say what this music is telling people it’s very much associated with the Chopin piano concerti, much more than Schumann, because you know the piano is a diva in a way. I remember the first rehearsal I did of this concerto was quite surprising because when we finished playing through the whole concerto at the end I realized I was playing the whole time. Really there is not so much time left to the orchestra. And I had this feeling when I played the Chopin piano concerti. Yes, the orchestra it’s important but the most important part is it’s a real piano concerto, solo piano with an orchestra.

And also a very funny thing, Clara concerto is the only concerto with Chopin’s first concerto to have only one trombone. It doesn’t happen in any other concerto. I think she took quite a lot of inspiration from Chopin’s writing. On the emotional level it can easily be compared with Chopin, but on the structural level this is something different. I think that probably the one that is closer is Liszt’s first concerto. The Clara concerto is a very compact concerto and the themes are connected from one movement to the other and of course there is no interruption between movements. Everything is connected. And in a way Liszt just modified completely the classical structure of the concerto, I think that also Clara did in a way because as I told you the second movement, I think, it is a romanze without words with cello and piano. It’s something that goes beyond any imagination for that time and also in the way she developed the themes. She started to compose the 3rd movement and then slowly she built the rest of the concerto. It made a very different perspective on the overall structure.  I think that it’s very very underestimated, the intellectual value of this concerto in the history of music.

SF: Agreed. Oh my goodness this is priceless. Thank you. You’re like taking the things I hoped you’d say and then like … [moves hand up above the bar].

BR: I’m so grateful that you’re doing this. Of course I noticed your enthusiasm on your tweets. Really, it’s nice to see that there is support from people because presenters are always afraid to present new repertoire. And I tell you every time I play this concerto the audience was so happy, so enthusiastic. So I think that really we need to give more attention to this music.

SF: Absolutely. That’s the whole idea. I’m glad it seems to be helpful and it’s working. I don’t want to take up too much of your time. Any other words for the public to help them fall in love with it?

BR: Honestly what I think is that it’s not a problem. People that don’t know it, don’t have prejudice. Usually the problem is when people think they know this kind of music and then they have prejudice. But what I notice is that playing this in concert halls where they had no idea what this concerto sounded like, it was an amazing surprise. The most important thing is not to have prejudice about this music. It’s not a minor composer. It just happened unfortunately because of a time when she thought she couldn’t be a good composer. She was I think one of the most clever people in the history of music. What I really hope is the fact that we are bringing this concerto especially will inspire other pianists and other musicians to play it. Because the only way to give dignity to a piece is to play it and to listen to it. We can talk and we can promote it but at the very end, it needs to be played. It needs to heard.

And for me the biggest success, last week I was in Amsterdam playing a recital, and I arrived at the concert Concertgebouw. Backstage, I met a person. He said to me, “You know I listened to your broadcast of the Clara Schumann concerto in Hamburg and thank you for playing it. I didn’t know this concerto. I think it’s so beautiful. Thank you for making me discover this.” And this was a musician of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

SF: Wow.

BR: So that’s the thing. I hope we will play more and more of this music because this is the only way to give dignity.

SF: I think I saw in one of your Instagram posts that you made a recording. Is that true?

BR: It’s true. Absolutely. We did a live recording in Baden-Baden with Yannick and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Warner Classical. Yannick was so nice to agree to that on a different label.

SF: Wonderful. That’s so great. I’m so excited, I can’t wait!

Beatrice Rana’s recording of Clara Wieck’s concerto releases February 4th, 2023.

For more extras about the NY Times article, read my interview with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Blog post outtakes from the article coming soon.

Also, check out my co-writer for this article, Price scholar, A. Kori Hill’s blog.