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Bach: The Well-tempered Clavier, Book 2 / Andrew Rangell

Release Date: 04/01/2022
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30176
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach Performer:  Andrew Rangell Number of Discs: 2

Pianist Andrew Rangell's debut recording—released thirty years ago—featured Bach's Goldberg Variations, F-sharp minor toccata, and the two Ricercares from "A Musical Offering". Over the course of many years, the verve, beauty, and originality of Mr. Rangell's Bach playing have been evidenced in a steady progression of interpretations: The Partitas, French Suites, Well-Tempered Clavier (bk.1), The Art of Fugue, English Suites, Inventions, Sinfonias, and many other individual pieces. Rangell's Bach survey ends with this second book of the WTC in sparkling, free-spirited performances.

Album Credits:
Recorded April 2021 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Massachusetts.
Read more Andrew Rangell
Recording Engineer/Mastering: Tom Stephenson
Editor: Luke Damrosch
Piano Technician: Christine Lovgren
Piano: Steinway Model D #586518 (New York)

Executive Producer: Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo
Production Assistant: Renée Oakford

"Could that have been Rangell’s intention – to change the way people have “always” heard The Well-Tempered Clavier and show that there are other legitimate if historically inauthentic ways to experience it? Rangell has had many years to live with and think about this music – The Well-Tempered Clavier is one of those pieces that performers and audiences alike contemplate and experience throughout a lifetime. And now we have the summation of Rangell’s current thoughts on Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier. He has produced a performance, on the Steinway & Sons label, with much the same sensibility that he brought to Book I; but the new recording is not quite as divisive as his version of Book I, or perhaps events of the past 15 years simply make it seem less outré. Still, it requires listeners to set aside their preconceptions of this music (and their familiarity with other, more-historically-informed performances) in order to appreciate and enjoy Rangell’s approach. There is enjoyment here, and Rangell has certainly thought carefully about this music and made a long set of conscious decisions to present it with the rhythm and tempo variations, the pedaling, and the unusual emphases that he brings to the work. The notes are all there, but the careful Baroque structure, the edifice built on regularity and attentiveness to detail, here becomes a much more personal construction, one in which Rangell feels the music and lets his feelings determine the speed, emphasis, rubato, two-hand balance, ornamentation, and pedaling that he employs. This makes it seem as if Rangell’s performance is a throwback to the era in which Bach was played with Romantic-era flair, by performers who had no knowledge of Baroque practices and simply wanted to use the piano’s capabilities to expound and color The Well-Tempered Clavier in much the same way that they would a work by, say, Liszt. But this is not quite the case with Rangell, whose performance shows that he does know what Bach created and what was expected in the Baroque, but chooses to take Bach’s preludes and fugues as a starting point for a kind of rumination on the music. Thus, he seems more comfortable with preludes such as No. 2 in C minor, which has little ornamentation, and No. 12 in F minor, which is akin to a theme and variations, than to ones that adhere more closely to Baroque norms of structure and ornament (Rangell often seems impatient with ornamentation). The fugues are a mixed bag, their more-stately elements tending to be downplayed in favor of unwarranted but sometimes intriguing changes in pacing and emphasis as the pieces progress. The sound in this recording is a touch thinner and cooler than the sound in Rangell’s Book I, befitting a reading that itself is a touch less preoccupied with deviations from the norm in this music – although the reading is not really more reserved. It is true that Rangell’s alterations of Bach’s pacing and structure are less extreme in Book II than in Book I, but this remains a very personal view of the music, one most suitable for listeners who already know The Well-Tempered Clavier well (and know it played on clavier!) and are looking for a distinctive, unusual, if sometimes rather misguided modern interpretation of this second set of 24 preludes and fugues."

-- Infodad

Rangell’s recording of Book I was on Bridge (May/June 2008). It was colorful and challenging to norms, with this imaginative pianist finding uncommon details in the pieces and sometimes changing a few notes or rhythms. We have had to wait a long time for this outstanding rendition of Book II.

He playfully and unpredictably brings out whatever grabs his interest. Often that is the bass line, in contrast to other pianists’ general habits of emphasizing right hand melodies or accenting fugal subject entries (which can get too predictable and dull). Like Watchorn on harpsichord (Mar/Apr 2010) he chooses to bring out the melodic tenor line in the C-sharp Prelude.

He doesn’t mind making a brusque sound now and then, letting the music have an earthy vulgarity. It’s a lot more enjoyable than a merely cerebral and prim Bach. Joao-Carlos Martin’s Labor recording (May/June 1995) had some comparable physicality. But, on listening to it again, I found that Rangell outdoes him. Wow.

-- American Record Guide

If I had to describe Andrew Rangell’s performances of Bach’s preludes and fugues here using only one word, that word would be idiosyncratic. I am no stranger to or hater of eccentric performances: One of the ways I first heard and learned Bach’s works when I started out was through the quirky recordings of Glenn Gould. A few of those I still love; but not all of them. Rangell is no less quirky than Gould, but his mannerisms show up in different places and in different ways than his predecessor. If Gould’s playing represented a sort of Modernist Bach in the 1950s, Rangell’s Bach is closer in spirit to Beethoven in its impetuousness. What do I mean? Only that Rangell holds nothing back—if his playing is not the cleanest or tidiest that one can find (and it is not), his no-holds-barred attitude can sometimes be refreshing.

When Rangell’s playing works, it can be not only illuminating, but downright beautiful, as in his very fine performances of the lighthearted F#-Major Prelude and Fugue as well as the more emotionally charged G#-Minor works. Here his playing sparkles in its simplicity and straightforwardness. But when his mannerisms appear—and they do often—it can be difficult to listen to his playing for long. If I were unacquainted with these works, I might relish Rangell’s plethora of mannerisms here as I once did Gould’s. But if Gould was quirky in regards his overly fast or slow tempos, his preference for staccato articulation, and his unbelievable voicing, often drawing one away from what one thought one should be listening to, Rangell’s mannerisms are more uneven. How so? One of those that is difficult to overlook is his unwillingness to pick and secure a solid tempo at the beginning of works, particularly fugues. The opening of the F#-Minor Fugue feels not only improvisatory but unmetrical. And this gets only slightly better as the piece moves forward, as the pianist often pauses and resets the tempo. This happens often throughout the recital. He also tends to accent notes that have no need to be emphasized. In preludes this can be distracting, but in fugues it can completely alter the voicing and the flow of the music. An example? The C-Major Fugue. And what of that Beethovenian quality I was alluding to before? It can be felt in his slightly brutal attacking, even jabbing of piano keys, in works such as the Eb-Minor or the G-Major Preludes.

Beyond my many complaints here, there is a ray of sunshine. And that has all to do with Rangell’s spontaneity, the obvious fun he has when he plays this music, and the energy he brings to it. While Rangell may not be my first choice, he is also not my last. Why is that? Because if there is one thing that the pianist does have going for him here—and it a big one—it is that he truly inhabits this music. If his performances are uneven in my book, the one thing I cannot accuse his playing of being is overly staid, proper, or boring. And if one is looking for a slightly different Bach—one that is not afraid to take chances or offend—then Rangell may be what you’re looking for. I think I would still rather be offended by Gould.

-- Fanfare

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