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Bach: English Suites Bwv 806-811 / Andrew Rangell

Release Date: 01/03/2020
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30136
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach Performer:  Andrew Rangell Number of Discs: 2

Long recognized as among our most eloquent and insightful interpreters of the major keyboard works of Bach and Beethoven, pianist Andrew Rangell has drawn acclaim for a variety of recordings. This double album, newly documenting Mr. Rangell’s exploration of Bach’s keyboard music, can be added to a long list of distinctive performances.

Album Credits:

Producer: Andrew Rangell
Recording Engineer: Tom Stephenson
Editing/Mastering: Brad Michel
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
Read more Production Assistant: Renée Oakford
Cover Design: Michelangelo/Andy Rangell


The iconoclastic pianist Andrew Rangell has recorded a good deal of Bach over the years, and his move to the piano-oriented Steinway & Sons label seems to have fired his imagination anew. The label supports him well here with engineering at the Shaolin Liu Performance Center in Massachusetts, capturing Rangell's all-important left-hand lines, detailed exploration of Bach's counterpoint, and hugely varied articulation. However, Rangell's style of Bach goes beyond all these factors, encompassing a deeply subjective approach to the material that has a greater variety of moods than one would think possible within the framework of the Baroque structure. It's not correct to say that he ignores the dance rhythms in the English Suites, for sometimes he observes them, but they are just one choice he makes among many different ones. In Bach, he might be called Glenn Gould without the humming, though his readings are even more varied than Gould's. Needless to say, those who think Bach's intentions are best revealed by straightforward playing on a harpsichord should steer clear, but most others are likely to find Rangell's work entirely absorbing.

-- AllMusic Guide

There are few musical pleasures greater than listening to Bach’s keyboard music played on the modern piano, and there are very few pianistic exponents of that repertoire more consistently impressive than Andrew Rangell. These two releases, [See A Bouquet of Bach / Andrew Rangell] issued one month apart, offer a scholarly take on one of the monuments of baroque keyboard composition and a more personal compilation of smaller works presented both in their original forms and in transcription. Rangell’s take on the six-part English Suites is simply magnificent; listen in particular to the delicacy and delight he shows in rendering the second menuet section of suite number 4; this is the kind of thing Rangell was born to do. The Bouquet of Bach collection is a bit quirkier, but every bit as lovely; the two- and three-part inventions nestle among brief selections from some of Bach’s notebooks, Egon Petri transcriptions of cantata arias, and other miscellany. Where some pianists temper what can sometimes feel like rhythmic relentlessness in Bach’s fugal compositions by means of rubato, Rangell does the same with dynamics–tenderly and tastefully executed, but with full artistic confidence. Highly recommended to all libraries.

-- CDHotlist

If the central tenet of music-making is the desirability of singing or playing in tune, accurately producing sound waves that vibrate at the correct frequency, then no one, it seems, did this better than Johann Sebastian Bach. Much of his keyboard music was written for the harpsichord – a near-ubiquitous instrument in his day – and it began to make a seamless transition to the piano no sooner the instrument was invented and to this day continues to be wonderfully interpreted.

One of the most recent is the unveiling of the English Suites with these gorgeous, free-spirited performances by Andrew Rangell. The suites are decidedly more grandiose than the French Suites and written entirely for pleasure rather than for instruction. The allemandes are rock steady throughout, the gigues extremely lively; the courante sections rapid while the sarabandes are utterly noble. The six suites are altogether easygoing and exquisitely flowery and are said to have borne a slight resemblance to the style of Couperin, with whom Bach is known to have corresponded.

The English Suites are not actually English, but rather more influenced by other European compositional elements, that seemingly – and fortuitously – held Bach’s attention. They begin with a prelude which is often, as in the Suite No.3 in G Minor BWV808, a large-scale concerto-like movement. Rangell brings matchless clarity to Bach’s multi-stranded music. This set of discs shows the pianist at his most enjoyable, astonishingly fleet-fingered and full of delightful argumentative intelligence.

-- Raul da Gama, The Whole Note

American pianist Andrew Rangell’s new survey of the six Bach English Suites is a marvelous achievement on every level. In many ways, the playing and interpretations recall an earlier school of performance of Baroque keyboard music. Rangell makes no attempt to have his grand piano evoke the sound of a harpsichord. This is not to say that Rangell takes an overly lush and Romantic approach to Bach keyboard performance. But the rich, full sound, wide variety of dynamics, and lovely integration of pedal sonorities are definitely not of the HIP school. Rangell also exhibits a wonderfully free and fluid approach to phrasing, with never a hint of a regimented or metronomic approach. This is certainly evident in Rangell’s use of rubato across extended phrases. But Rangell delights in offering such variety even when just a few notes are involved. Take, as but one example, the playful manner with which Rangell toys with the repeated triplets in the opening Prelude of the Suite No. 1 in A. Rangell also for the most part eschews interpolated ornamentation in the repeats of various sections (he observes the vast majority, but not all, repeats). I think that if you heard these recordings in sound more typical of the early to mid-20th century, you would be easily convinced you were enjoying the work of a great pianist from that era.

From a technical perspective, Rangell is superb. He surmounts the virtuoso passages in the various opening Preludes and concluding Gigues with the utmost panache, often at very fleet tempos indeed. The passagework is always executed in pristine fashion, with the voices impeccably balanced. In his liner notes, Rangell points to the Suites’ slow-tempo Allemandes and Sarabandes as “the most intimate movements, involving innumerable spontaneous decisions.” In Rangell’s hands, those movements sing with the utmost intimacy, lyricism, and heartfelt expression, the product of his gorgeous singing tone, elegant legato, unerring gradations of dynamics, and plasticity of phrasing. The quick-tempo dance movements have an infectious momentum and verve. Bach explores a universe of musical and emotional expression in these English Suites, and Andrew Rangell does justice to it all. The recorded sound is superb, replicating the experience of hearing these marvelous performances in an intimate and acoustically pristine concert venue. If you are at all willing to hear Bach’s keyboard works on a modern instrument, I recommend these English Suites to you wholeheartedly. I certainly felt closer to these majestic works after hearing Rangell’s sterling interpretations.

-- Ken Meltzer, Fanfare

Rangell is slowly and methodically working his way through Bach’s keyboard works. Over the years, and for several different labels, he already has recorded the French Suites, the six Partitas, Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, the inventions and sinfonias, The Art of Fugue, and a host of smaller or miscellaneous works. These English Suites date from 2019 and were recorded in Rockport, Massachusetts. Rangell was born in 1948, which makes him 72 as I write this, although he looks—and plays—like a younger man. Good music can do that to you.

As his been the case in his earlier Bach recordings, Rangell’s decision to play these works on a modern Steinway means that he uses all of the resources that a modern Steinway D has to offer. These readings, then, exhibit the widest range of tone color, articulation, and dynamics. They are seldom purely Baroque in style, but instead, look forward to the generations that followed Bach, and their increasing interest in affect and subjectivity. There are evenings when this is exactly the kind of Bach I want to hear, and there are other evenings when I want to hear what a musician can do within the more limited range of choices that were available during Bach’s time. On those latter evenings, I probably will listen to a harpsichordist. When I am open to a freer way of playing this music, I probably will not be able to do much better than Rangell—at least if I want to hear all six suites at a go. Just to put my opinions into perspective, I have never been a friend of Glenn Gould’s Bach. To me, it seems cavalier and insensitive, and more enlightening about who Gould was than about what Bach’s music is. I play Gould’s Bach recordings occasionally to remind myself how much I dislike them, and then I go about my business again. In other words, if Gould is your gold standard, you probably will not enjoy Rangell.

I am certain that Bach did not intend anyone to play, or to hear, all six English Suites back to back. Nevertheless, in the modern era we are more and more likely to do exactly that, for better or worse. As if to recognize that fact, Rangell is the first pianist who has made me feel that each suite builds on the one that came before it. These two discs form a long crescendo, if you will, and Suite No. 6 brings the program to an end in a blaze of virtuosity, imagination, and tonal splendor. Not that Rangell’s performance of the earlier suites is inferior in any way, but what he does in Suite No. 6 really is the cherry on top, from the music box sonorities that he evokes in the Gavotte II to the diabolical finger-play that sets the concluding Gigue on fire.

It makes more sense to compare Rangell to another pianist, so I took Angela Hewitt—or better, her Hyperion recording of these works—down from the shelf. Hewitt consistently plays in a more detaché style, and she varies her dynamics, even within a phrase, more than Rangell. She seems more in control of her technique than Rangell—and that is saying a lot—although at times her fondness for surface effects prevents her from getting as deeply into the music as she could. In the sarabandes, I think Rangell has a clear edge over Hewitt. Both are pretty in these movements, but it is Rangell who realizes the music’s nobility more surely.

If you want these works played on a piano, Rangell is among the top choices in a competitive field. Although I don’t think he displaces Schiff or Perahia, for example, he can be mentioned in the same breath. This is a worthy next chapter in Rangell’s long-term relationship with Bach.

-- Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare

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.

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