Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


WGBH Radio WGBH Radio

Beethoven: The Final Masterworks For Piano / Andrew Rangell

Release Date: 12/06/2011
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30007
Composer:  Ludwig van Beethoven Performer:  Andrew Rangell Number of Discs: 3
Recorded in: Stereo Length: 3 Hours 35 Mins.

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonatas: Nos. 28–32. Diabelli Variations. Bagatelles, op. 126 Andrew Rangell (pn) STEINWAY & SONS 30007 (3 CDs: 214:49)

Here, collected on three CDs, are Beethoven’s final masterworks for piano. I must admit I had no idea that Steinway & Sons had branched out into producing CDs, though the credits make no secret of the fact that these are recycled recordings from 1977 (
Read more Diabelli Variations ), 1991–92 (sonatas), and 1995 (Bagatelles) that originally appeared on the Dorian label.

Two of Andrew Rangell’s ventures into Bach—a disc of miscellaneous keyboard works and a complete Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier —earned strong endorsements from me in Fanfare 30:1 and 31:5. So not only did I look forward to hearing the pianist’s Beethoven, I actually requested this set for review, and I was not disappointed that I did.

Rangell is as informed a player of Beethoven as he is of Bach, and his own booklet notes testify to his erudition. A reading of those notes reveals that Rangell considers neither the three concluding sonatas nor even the massive “Hammerklavier,” No. 29, to be the radical break with the composer’s past keyboard works. Rather, he cites the A-Major Sonata, No. 28, as the moment of the leap, pointing out the new types and configurations of movements, the transfiguring synthesis of fugal and variations forms with that of the sonata, the strange, widespread textures and new, expressive varieties of trills, and so on.

What strike me immediately about Rangell’s performance of the A-Major Sonata are his easeful lyricism in the first movement and his sunny, joyful interpretation of the second movement, which comes across as more playful than stern, as it does, for example, in the hands of Pollini.

Rangell also brings a certain sense of intimacy to the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which, to some, may seem out of character with the grand scale of the work and the declamatory nature of a good deal of its writing. But in truth, there are moments of inwardness, and not just in the great Adagio, that Rangell calls attention to. This may seem an odd comparison, but Rangell’s “Hammerklavier” strikes me as being of similar mind and approach to that of Glenn Gould; it comes to the fore especially in the fugal episodes of the last movement in which Rangell’s Bach-like manner of counterpointing has much in common with Gould’s.

The gentle lyricism returns in Rangell’s fluid treatment of the E-Major Sonata’s first movement, but the real highlight here is the closing Gesangvoll movement. I’m quite sure I’ve never heard the opening theme and slow variations played this slowly, this quietly, and with such a sense of rapt stillness. This has to be the very definition of innigkeit . If I could choose only one version of this movement to live with, this would be it.

The feeling of an intimate, private conversation is sustained in the first movement of the A?-Major Sonata, intruded upon only briefly by the Allegro molto which, again, as in the A-Major Sonata, Rangell puts a playful spin on. The finale is possibly Beethoven’s most structurally and harmonically complex movement before his final string quartets. The relationships among the intervallic and motivic elements are extraordinarily intricate, even convoluted. Alfred Brendel has observed that the entire sonata leading up to this last movement is derived from a hexachord, the intervals of a third and fourth that intersect it, and voice-leading by contrary motion. This is not the place for detailed analysis; suffice it to say that drawing together all of these strands and uniting them in a performance that sounds all of a piece is a significant challenge Rangell manages to surmount with the musical acuity that complements the intellectual acuity of his written program notes.

Of Beethoven’s final three sonatas, I have to admit that the last, in C Minor, is the one I find most puzzling. The first movement, with its slow introduction followed by several pages of ranting and raving, has always struck me as a throwback to the style and content of his earlier “Pathétique” and “Tempest” sonatas. The succeeding Arietta, which is also the concluding movement of this two-movement structure, is of a different musical universe, prompting such explanations to make sense of the whole thing as “the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish” (Robert Taub). Brendel hears in the Arietta something “mystical,” while Mitsuko Uchida has likened its third variation to boogie-woogie, jazz, and ragtime.

In any case, if you’re looking for a performance of the first movement that storms the heavens Rangell is probably not your man. In keeping with his general approach to these late works, he tends to avoid tantrums for a more cool-headed reserve. In that reserve, however, there is a sense of authority that comes from absolute technical mastery and control. His Arietta, once again, exhibits the same sense of quiet ecstasy heard in the concluding movement of the E-Major Sonata.

A number of excellent Diabelli s have come down the pike recently, not least of which is one by Paul Lewis, reviewed in 35:2. I won’t say that Rangell outperforms Lewis in the work, but given his take on the sonatas, I am quite surprised by his reading of the Diabelli Variations. Contrary to my expectations that he would play straight man to Beethoven’s moments of raucous, rowdy humor, Rangell proves capable of being quite the clown. Just listen to one of the more absurdist variations, No. 9, to hear how delightfully daffy in response to Beethoven’s dippiness Rangell can be. This is a fun-filled Diabelli I’d rate among the best.

The Bagatelles, op. 126, are Beethoven’s valedictory to the piano. The six short pieces share with the final sonatas many of the same musical characteristics but now distilled down to what amounts to an almost gestural language that permits essentially no development. Most authors agree that the pieces are integrated in such a way as to constitute a cycle intended to be played as an uninterrupted sequence.

Up to this point, Rangell’s booklet notes are a model of clarity and a mine of useful information, but something goes horribly awry in his concluding paragraph addressing the bagatelles. He refers to the work as being composed of four movements, when in fact the number is six, and he describes each as embodying a different quality of andante , when in fact andante accounts for only two out of the six pieces, the others being marked Allegro, Quasi allegretto, and two of them Presto , though I’ll concede that the concluding Presto gives way to an Andante , but then ends with one of Beethoven’s not atypical two-finger salutes.

Fortunately, whatever gremlins played havoc with Rangell’s notes don’t trouble his playing of the six numbers that round out this very handsome Beethoven set. Rangell takes the listener on a kind of transcendental, spiritual journey through Beethoven’s late piano works—the Diabelli Variations excepted, which is more earthy—an approach that may not appeal to everyone. It does, however, very much appeal to me, which is why I would strongly recommend this set to you, though not necessarily as a one and only survey of these works, and certainly not if you already have the original Dorian releases.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins


American pianist Andrew Rangell has a gift for unorthodox readings that are compelling even if you can't quite concur with the steps he takes. In his youth, he would sometimes whistle the optional flute part of the Ives Piano Sonata No. 2 ("Concord"). Since beginning an association with the Steinway & Sons label he has recorded major mainstream repertory items, and here he keeps to his independent watys in traversing Beethoven's late piano music. The set is never dull, and there are many striking moments. Chief among them are the finale of the mighty Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 ("Hammerklavier"), where he seems on the point of tearing the piano apart. The slow movements are deeply introspective, and the time he takes in the big variation sets, especially the finale of the Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109, lets the massive trills build slowly and emerge as some unheard-of force of nature. The overall program is strong as well. The Bagatelles, Op. 126, are usually paired with Beethoven's earlier two sets of bagatelles, but they are profound small pieces and belong where Rangell places them here, as the capstone of Beethoven's pianistic output. What's not to like? Maybe nothing: Rangell keeps up the momentum over long arcs of music. Or maybe the violent scherzos and the general abruptly sharp contrasts will provide an unwelcome jolt. Sample the first two movements of the Op. 109 Sonata: the first is unusually slow and almost dreamy, while the second is slammed. Rangell's intensity serves him very well indeed in the "Hammerklavier," but not so well in the 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120, where the work's interplay with its simple theme is lost and its humorous moments seem to come out of the blue. The bagatelles have ecstatic moments, but other stretches in which detail is lost: the ragtime-like syncopations in the B minor piece are lost in a blur of speed. Even bearing all this in mind, this is well worth the time of the serious Beethoven collector; Rangell does things with these towering works that nobody else has done before.

-- AllMusic Guide
Read less