Bach: English Suites Nos. 1-6, BWV 806-811. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).
Bach: Inventions, BWV 772-786; Sinfonias, BWV 787-801; Aria Variata, BWV 989; Jesu meine Freude, BWV 753; Little Prelude in D minor, BWV 926; Menuett—arrangement by Egon Petri; Sheep May Safely Graze, BWV 208; I Step Before Thy Throne, BWV 668. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons. $17.99.
The many undeniable merits of historically informed performance practices for Baroque works can obscure the circumstances that render less historically accurate renditions of this music attractive. It takes a musician of considerable sensitivity and unusual temperament to find a way to make Bach’s music effectively communicative when performing it in a manner that is not in accord with Bach’s wishes, plans or instrumentation. Andrew Rangell’s new recordings for Steinway & Sons will certainly not satisfy listeners who prefer that these works be heard as Bach intended them to be heard, on the instruments he knew and for which he wrote the material. But an audience interested in going beyond historically accurate playing – perhaps one already familiar with it and looking for something additional – will find much to admire and enjoy in Rangell’s readings of the six English Suites, the Inventions and Sinfonias, and a potpourri of other material.
There is something pleasantly “retro” about Bach performances that focus on warmth, as Rangell’s do – ones in which the pianist does not hesitate to use pedals liberally, paying attention to the music’s central and crucial contrapuntal elements but also bringing forth its emotional warmth by employing the piano’s distinctive aural world and not attempting to make the modern instrument duplicate or even approximate the sound of a harpsichord. For example, the chords in Courante I from the first English Suite, in A, are here just as important as the music’s forward progress, and it is the overlay of the lines in Courante II that Rangell emphasizes. The Sarabande is genuinely moving, while the concluding Gigue has the harmonized bounce of a dance of a later time. The second suite, in A minor, features a delicate and well-balanced Allemande and a Sarabande in which the broken chords provide a firm melodic foundation. The third suite, in G minor, has a particularly sprightly Prelude and a Gavotte I that sounds ahead of its time in bits of insistent dissonance. The fourth suite, in F, has a particularly gentle Sarabande and a Menuet I that is expressive more than it is danceable. The E minor fifth suite has unusual intensity in its Prelude and, as a result, a particularly strong contrast with the following Allemande. And Rangell makes this suite’s two Passepied movements quite jaunty. The sixth suite, in D minor, has the longest Prelude of all, and Rangell presents it as something of a mini-fantasia, providing a strong contrast with the delicacy of the two Gavotte movements that occur later. Throughout this two-CD set, Rangell shows a firm grasp of Bach’s elements of contrast, adding to them the piano’s ability to sustain notes and chords readily and therefore provide a contrast with the separate lines, laid one upon the next, that characterize Baroque counterpoint. The result is performances that view Bach through the lens of a later time while still incorporating, and indeed emphasizing, the ways in which his English Suites offer contrasting moods and emotions among their movements, not merely differences of rhythm, style and tempo.
Rangell maintains the same approach in a single-CD recital called “A Bouquet of Bach” that features all the Inventions and Sinfonias and, equally significantly in terms of Rangell’s approach to Bach, three transcriptions by pianist Egon Petri (1881-1962) that very much partake of 19th-century sensibilities even though they were composed in the 20th. Petri’s arrangements of Sheep May Safely Graze, I Step Before Thy Throne, and a set of three minuets that Petri combined into a single piece, all predate the historical-practices movement and, accordingly, have warmth and fullness that are quite pianistic and not much in keeping with the clarity and linearity of the original material. Rangell’s performances of these pieces are certainly not as full-blown Romantic as Petri’s own, but there is a clear line of descent from the earlier pianist to the younger one, with Rangell seeming quite comfortable indeed in presenting Bach in the guise of a much later era – and using Petri’s transcriptions to display the emotional rather than structural underpinnings of Bach’s work. The other music on this CD gets somewhat less full-blooded treatment but partakes of similar sensibilities. In Aria Variata, for example, the fast repeat notes are challenging on the piano and sound quite different from the way they do on the harpsichord; here, Rangell focuses more on combining and blending the two hands than on keeping them separate and distinct. Jesu meine Freude is a lovely and moving work whose emotional core Rangell uses the piano to emphasize. The Little Prelude in D minor, in contrast, is really a trifle, just a minute long, and Rangell makes it into a kind of “appetite cleanser” amid the more-substantive material. Most of the Inventions and Sinfonias are also quite short, and Rangell uses the piano’s sonority to distinguish them in ways that go beyond what Bach built into these brief, beautifully balanced bits of polyphony. Rangell’s playing is not exactly a throwback to that of Petri’s time and earlier – it is, rather, a reinterpretation for the 21st century of the thinking that went into approaches to Bach that sought to “update” his music on the grounds that it sounds good on modern instruments and would have been written for the piano if Bach had only had one available. In reality, that argument is specious: Bach would have written for the piano, no doubt, but he would have written very different music for it, not what he wrote for the far greater linear clarity of the harpsichord. And Rangell does not make any such argument overtly: his performances themselves constitute an assertion that playing Bach keyboard music on piano, and utilizing the modern instrument’s capabilities in ways that Bach never intended, can be satisfying in ways that are different from those offered by the original instrumentation – not better, certainly, but different. Rangell’s fine performances are a bit of an anomaly now that we do know so much more about what Bach’s music was supposed to sound like. But they certainly have pleasures of their own, and audiences that especially enjoy the sound and emotive capabilities of the modern piano will find them highly satisfying.
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