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Bach: The Art of Fugue / Andrew Rangell

Release Date: 09/25/2012
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30012
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach Performer:  Andrew Rangell Number of Discs: 1
Recorded in: Stereo

This recording on the Steinway & Sons label features Andrew Rangell, one of the truly distinguished Bach interpreters of the present day. The Steinway label has established a reputation for perfectly capturing the sound of their instruments, the finest in the world, in these exceptional audiophile recordings.

"In the last decade of his life, alone with his genius, Bach joyfully and purposefully immersed himself in the culmination of a life’s work – intending to place his own indelible stamp on the vanishing art of pure counterpoint. What we hear in the work’s slow and deliberate unfolding is the miracle of a vast and moving meditation - a farewell testament for the ages."
– Andrew Rangell
Read more /> Album Credits:
Recorded December 19-21, 2011 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Massachusetts
Producer: Andrew Rangell
Recording Engineer: Tom Stephenson
Editing/Mastering: Brad Michel
Piano Technician: Christine Lovgren
Piano: Steinway Model D #586518 (New York)
Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Oberlander Group

"[Andrew Rangell’s] free-spirited Bach is distinguished by its powerful drive and intensity and a remarkable articulation that illuminates contrapuntal intricacies with microscopic clarity...His playing captures every mood in the psychological spectrum.“ – New York Times

“He brings us precipitously close to the act of creation; the music seems to be evolving as he plays." – The Washington Post

I can hardly get enough of listening to this recording. It hypnotizes me. It takes me to a good and comforting place. Each successive listening reveals a seemingly, heretofore unnoticed beauty and profound polyphonic mystery. I realize how excessive this sounds, but this is how Andrew Rangell’s playing of J. S. Bach affects me.

This recording of The Art of Fugue is immediately distinguished by a stature of greatness, that sets it apart from recordings by other pianists of the current generation, and places it securely on the shelf beside the likes of Wanda Landowska, Edwin Fischer, Glenn Gould, Roselyn Tureck, and the legendary Russian pianist Maria Yudina.

The Art of Fugue is Bach’s last major composition, and as such is a prodigious testament to his genius and imagination in the craft of counterpoint. It is composed of fourteen fugues and four canons thematically related; a comprehensive and illustrated manual of counterpoint, to paraphrase Mr. Rangell. The miracle of this composition however, is that it is not merely a musical textbook. It is an enormously moving poetic meditation, and it is this “Poetry” I feel, which Andrew Rangell evokes and reveals to us like no other previous interpreter.

There are no quirks or exaggerations in his playing whatever. It is exaggerated tempi and quirky phrasing that are the Hallmarks of Glenn Gould’s playing. Mr. Rangell unfolds the work in a slow and deliberate manner, giving the music plenty of room to speak for itself without the need of over-emphasis or calculated phrasing and tempi.

If your recordings of Wanda Landowska and Roselyn Tureck are accumulating cobwebs, and Glenn Gould’s highly stylized performances are not sounding as fresh as they once did, you will want to “give ear” immediately to this new and fascinating recording. I guarantee it will not disappoint you, but will shine new lights on many old and familiar passageways down the halls of J. S. Bach.

This recording of J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue by Andrew Rangell is part of an ongoing series of piano recitals by Steinway & Sons for ArkivMusic LLC. This series of digital recordings is sonically among the finest ever engineered. Upon first hearing you will immediately notice the superiority of the sound. The rich sonority of the Steinway Piano is beautifully captured and preserved, giving an added depth to your pleasure and enjoyment of this recording.

-– Micaele Sparacino,

Andrew Rangell seems to be just the sort of person you would like to talk to over a pot of tea and some delicious cakes. His multifaceted career has included recordings of many of Bach’s works as well as DVDs for children, which apparently call on “his special talents as author, illustrator, narrator, and pianist” (CD liner notes). The notes on The Art of Fugue are written by the performer and provide a very accessible and comprehensive introduction to this daunting work. The playing has a similar effect to that of the CD booklet - Rangell manages to make the movements accessible through his playing. These contrapuntal masterpieces each have their own identity and the performer’s decisions about these identities and how to communicate to the audience is truly engaging. Contrapunctus 4 stands out; the particularly busy section, where the rhythms and voices start to become more entangled, is projected clearly as well as harbouring energy and drive.

Movement 14, the first of four two-part canons, is somewhat magical. Until this point, the fugues have been building in complexity, both technically and in the devices used in their composition. Suddenly the texture is palpably different and this moment is often what distinguishes the great players from the good. Rangell handles this moment well, it is clear that he has an over-arching concept of the whole work whilst being able to focus on the details.

The climax of the work, the unfinished triple fugue, stops the heart like nothing else can. The entry of the last subject which is based on Bach’s name (B flat A C B natural in the German notation system), is treated delicately by Rangell and how else to leave this work but in silence?

The recording of this movement which is most arresting has Glenn Gould humming along with his playing. Whilst Gould will always be the man to beat on a piano for this work, this recording is more matter of fact and communicates more plainly than Gould, where one is often left thinking that Gould understands something that no-one else ever will. Rangell’s broad experience and scholarship lead to a cohesive yet detailed performance of one of the most inspiring pieces ever written.

-- Hannah Parry-Ridout, MusicWeb International

American pianist Andrew Rangell is idiosyncratic but never dull or unmusical. In his earlier years he sometimes whistled the optional flute part in the last movement of Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 (“Concord”). For the U.S. Steinway & Sons imprint he has recorded a group of Bach’s landmark works, and your reaction is likely to depend on how you feel about highly pianistic Bach in general; Rangell indulges at will in free tempos, pedal, and considerable dynamic range, the last two of which were unavailable to Bach. That said, if your attention has ever been piqued by this artist, The Art of the Fugue may be a good place to start. After all, no “authentic” performance of this work is possible; Bach wrote the work in open score, with no indication of instrumentation. Why he did so is a matter of ongoing debate, but perhaps in this, his swan song, he wanted to point to secrets in his work that only the future could discover. And Rangell does find a great many intriguing details in this giant piece that is at once a treatise on the fugue and a set of variations. Little fragments of the theme show up in places you may have never heard them, and Rangell seems especially attuned to the role cadences play in anchoring the versions of the fugue to its origin. Again, you could argue that the pianist is introducing structural details that were in no way part of the work’s conception. But heavy as his interpretation may be, it’s not ponderous, and there’s a sense of both joy and of deep passionate involvement. Rangell’s performance, which he produced himself, was recorded at the new Shalin Liu Performance Center on the northeast Massachusetts seacoast, and it reflects the high engineering values of Steinway & Sons thus far.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to hear about a half dozen recordings featuring Andrew Rangell. I do not recall ever hearing one that was less than intriguing. At the same time, however, I also cannot recall ever hearing one that was free from idiosyncrasies or the occasional controversy. This new disc on the Steinway & Sons label is no different from what I have come to expect from Rangell—it is at once fascinating and puzzling.

Let me start with the good news. To say that The Art of Fugue is difficult to play is an understatement. In his magnum opus, a compendium of genius if there ever was one, Bach paid little attention to what might be required to bring this immensely complex music to life. Chief among the many challenges posed by Bach’s valedictory score is making this music of the mind also sound like music of the soul. This is where Rangell succeeds, often admirably so. He has clearly internalized Bach’s monumental fugues, and his performances are at once lucid and affecting. He also manages to maintain a sense of purpose throughout the performance, and, perhaps more than any other pianist I’ve ever heard, he almost succeeds in making the score come across as one integrated whole.

The bad news is that Rangell’s performances abound in mannerisms and quirks. He has difficulty playing straightforwardly, routinely slows down to emphasize particular voices coming in and out of the fugal thicket, and deploys various techniques that cause the music to occasionally, but not infrequently, emerge as oddly sentimental. In many ways, this performance reminds me of what a professor might do during a master class to overemphasize particular points for the student. In other words, Rangell oftentimes over-interprets the music.

The verdict? Notwithstanding the bad news, I believe that this is still a recording that warrants serious consideration. To be sure, it is not the greatest Art of Fugue I have come across. In my book, Evgeni Koroliov’s famous recording gets the top prize. But Rangell’s recording may help those who still find Bach’s masterpiece intimidating appreciate the incredible beauty of the music. The quality of the recorded sound is excellent. Rangell’s New York-made Steinway perfectly illustrates why the belief that Hamburg-made instruments are superior to their American counterparts is nothing but a myth.

-- Fanfare

Here is a sensitive and intelligent account of Bach’s Art of Fugue. Rangell is a humble artist. He explains his decision to leave Contrapunctus 14 in its unfinished state in the liner notes: “Because I have neither the skills nor the disposition to attempt such a completion, I have opted (as many others have) to preserve Bach’s poignant silence.”

It may be that Rangell does not have Bachlike skills in composition, but his performances reveal a deep knowledge of Bach’s outsized ode to fugue form. His playing preserves the independence of each voice so that all details are presented simultaneously. The fugue subject never dominates the overall sound and accompanying voices are just as important. He is like the hunter who uses every last bit of the animal he has slain. It may be taxing on the listener’s attention to have to take everything in at once, but we are all the better for it. It is as if we are viewing the chaos and disorder (but also the beauty and magnificence) of the earth from a distant and mysterious corner of the universe, all with the aid of a preternaturally powerful telescope—Bach’s pen.

-- American Record Guide Read less