March 31, 2022


Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I. Andrew Rangell, piano. Bridge Records. $14.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. Andrew Rangell, piano. Steinway & Sons. $24.99 (2 CDs).

C.P.E. Bach: Württemberg Sonatas Nos. 4-6; W.F. Bach: Keyboard Sonata, FK NV8. David Murray, piano. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor; John Ireland: Piano Sonata; Charles Villiers Stanford: 24 Preludes, Op. 163—Nos. 5 and 24; Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Three-Fours, Op. 71—Waltz No. 2; Rebecca Clarke: Cortège. Tom Hicks, piano. Divine Art. $18.99.

Mark John McEncroe: Reflections & Recollections, Volume 4. Van-Anh Nguyen, piano. Navona. $14.99.

     There will never be a definitive answer to the question of the best instrument to use for Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and other of his keyboard works, because all the people on all sides of the matter have too much at stake. There is no question that clavier in Bach’s time meant harpsichord or clavichord (less often, organ), and certainly did not mean piano, but pianists continue to insist that their instrument brings out elements of the music that Bach put into it but could not fully realize through the keyboards of his time. Or at least some pianists insist that is so – others simply want to play the music, which is so inviting on so many levels that even some non-keyboard performers find ways to offer it on a variety of instruments, frequently shedding new light in the process. It is not Bach’s light, but it is light nonetheless. And then there are pianists who are curious about ways in which The Well-Tempered Clavier can be subsumed within a modern instrument, one whose inherent design makes the expressiveness and the overall sound of the preludes and fugues entirely different from anything Bach could have imagined. Andrew Rangell is one of those performers who are thoroughly unashamed of using the piano’s capabilities to deliver Bach’s music in ways the composer never intended. Fifteen years ago, Rangell recorded Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier in a way that could charitably be described as quirky: it frequently did not sound much like Bach at all, using the piano’s range, pedals and aural capabilities, including the sound inherent in struck rather than plucked strings, to produce a highly personal interpretation filled with flashes of insight and long stretches of wrongheadedness. The recording remains available on Bridge Records and is more than a curiosity: it is a very unusual approach by a highly skilled performer who is clearly unafraid to rethink a major work in the classical-music canon – and the sound of the discs is clear and warm in a way that captures Rangell’s unexpected turns of phrase, tempo alterations, and unusual handling of ornamentation cleanly and distinctly. The performance sounds really good and also really strange: it is highly unlikely that this should be any listener’s first or even primary version of The Well-Tempered Clavier, but it has so many unusual elements – which, even when overdone, never seem merely capricious – that it accomplishes the goal of getting those who already know and greatly admire The Well-Tempered Clavier to think about the work in a very different and often enlightening way.

     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.

     Many modern listeners are unaware that “old Bach,” as Johann Sebastian was known, was less popular among audiences in the 18th century than his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-1788). C.P.E. Bach was a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical eras: his willingness to embrace new musical styles and incorporate more harmony and less counterpoint into his works, more emotion and fewer fugues, proved highly attractive to forward-looking audiences who found “old Bach” rather too staid and old-fashioned. C.P.E. Bach’s works were already finding considerable success while his father was writing his own later music. The six Württemberg Sonatas date to 1742-43 and were published in 1744 – before J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue. But the C.P.E. Bach pieces, although written for harpsichord, sound almost as if they are moving in the direction of the fortepiano – although not as far in a strictly pianistic direction as David Murray takes three of them on a new MSR Classics CD. Murray plays Nos. 4-6 adeptly and with closer attention to the style of the mid-18th century than Rangell brings to The Well-Tempered Clavier. But still, these are not piano sonatas, their three-movement form clearly harking back to the approach of “old Bach” and Vivaldi. Sonata No. 4 is distinguished by an almost Haydnesque lightness in its finale, but the sonata that most clearly shows C.P.E. Bach as an important transitional composer is No. 6, which includes a recitative-like introduction, a complex and emotional Adagio non molto, and a highly contrapuntal conclusion. These sonatas are all interesting works, their comparative “modernity” by 18th-century standards emphasized by Murray’s use of a piano rather than a harpsichord – although they really do sound stylistically clearer on the older instrument. This is even truer of the additional keyboard sonata that Murray plays, which is by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784). W.F. Bach has never been as popular as his younger brother: his music has a studied feel about it, structurally close to that of his father but with less elegance and lacking the same sense of flow and structural cohesion. The sonata chosen by Murray is well-made and in the same three-movement form as those by C.P.E. Bach, but it is less engaging and altogether less memorable. It also fits the piano less well – this is very clearly a piece that belongs on harpsichord, no matter how much Murray and other pianists enjoy performing repertoire from this time period.

     On the other hand, Tom Hicks’ new CD on the Divine Art label is 100% for, about and featuring the piano, in a recital that is somewhat uneven in the interest level of the pieces but certainly very varied in presentation. Liszt’s well-known and massive B minor sonata gets a broad, committed, intense performance here, with Hicks delving deeply into the somewhat overdone emotionalism of the piece and presenting its varied and contrasting sections with strength and solidity. The sonata tends to sprawl, and Hicks lets it do so, capturing the differing moods of its movements and sections-within-movements while still making clear that it is a unified whole. The contrast with John Ireland’s sonata is a fascinating one. The two works are separated by most of a century – Liszt’s dates to 1853, Ireland’s to 1918-20. But Ireland’s seriousness and expansiveness compare very well with Liszt’s, although Liszt is more gestural in his emoting and Ireland more heartfelt (his sonata is in part a response to the Great War). Ireland’s sonata makes some of its points through a level of dissonance that Liszt never employed, and Ireland’s stately central movement is in a style all his own – one that Hicks clearly finds quite congenial. The Ireland sonata is a major work that is filled with intensity and expressiveness that Hicks brings out with considerable skill – this is a very involved and knowing performance. A bit oddly, the two sonatas appear at the conclusion of the CD, following Hicks’ playing of four short encore-like pieces. Two preludes by Charles Villiers Stanford open the disc and go by pretty much in a flash – together they last barely three minutes. Next comes an attractive, small-scale slow waltz by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and then a serious (but also small-scale) Cortège by Rebecca Clarke, which nicely sets up the mood of the Ireland sonata that follows it. Everything is well-played and attractive, although the mixture of music is a trifle on the odd side. The fine renditions of the major works by Liszt and Ireland are very much the primary attractions here.

     A new Navona CD is strictly for existing fans of the music of Mark John McEncroe (born 1947): it is the fourth and last in a piano-music series called Reflections and Recollections. The works here, all ably handled by Van-Anh Nguyen, are original pieces for piano, not the reductions of larger pieces often offered by McEncroe as piano music. There are eight works in all on the disc. In a Dorian Mood flows gently and evenly throughout. And the Congregation Goes – Amen has a quiet, responsive feeling at the beginning, then continues in a mostly tranquil mood. A Celtic Andante is slightly more upbeat than the first two works and has at most a mild Irish/Scottish flavor. Into the Realm of Dark Matter is a more-emphatic piece – welcome after three comparatively unassuming ones – and offers greater contrast among sections and a somewhat more-dissonant sonic palette. For Cecile – A Slow Waltz is rather sweet and endearing, perhaps a bit cloying, but not especially waltzlike, at least in the sense of being danceable. Fanfare – A Tribute to the Wilderness, rather surprisingly in light of its title, starts quietly and tentatively, and although it does have a somewhat sylvan quality, it is on the bland side musically. The Medieval Connection & Now has nothing particularly old-fashioned about it and not much “new-fashioned,” either, coming across as a kind of middle-of-the-road lounge-music offering. Echoes in the Night’s Silence concludes the CD with much the same quietude and delicacy that are pervasive in most of the other works – nothing here, or anywhere on the disc, offers high drama or deep emotion, with all the works seemingly partaking of a kind of quiet observational nostalgia that makes them sound much the same. The pieces presumably have specific personal meanings for the composer, but even though Nguyen plays them feelingly, not very much in the way of communicative emotion ever comes through. The works, singly and collectively, are certainly pleasant enough, and for some listeners, especially ones already familiar with McEncroe’s music, that will be enough.

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