Pianist Andrew Rangell wrestled with feisty demons of Beethoven and Charles Ives—and a little devil of Stravinsky—on a “Living Legend” grand piano at the Steinert Building’s recital hall/showroom Saturday evening, and came away unbloodied and victorious.
In an unusual career that is both wide and deep, Rangell encompasses the complete Beethoven sonata cycle, recordings of Bach’s keyboard masterworks, forays into Eastern European masters, and lately his own children’s books and videos. Here he drew three 12-minute works from middle-period Beethoven and from the First World War and early Jazz Age, a bagatelle and a masterwork. That the piano in question has a logbook of distinguished performers both jazz and classical—Emmanuel Ax, Lang Lang, Yefim Bronfman; Keith Jarrett, Diana Krall, McCoy Tyner—seemed in keeping with Rangell’s selections touching both spheres. (As primarily a jazz reviewer, I could hardly help from cross-referencing ideas to and from Gershwin, Satie’s Parade, Ran Blake, Antheil, Dave Burrell, Paul Whiteman.)
Rangell typically dazzled with brisk, lucid readings of Beethoven’s quirky and syncopated Six Variations (Op. 34), and ranged from solemn meditation through challenging whirlwind of mystery and fury in the Moonlight Sonata (op. 27, #2). He brought sharp focus to the dualities inherent in the F Major Sonata (Op. 54; the composer’s first of four forays into the ‘mystical balance’ of two-movement form) with the ‘beauty’ of its politely frosty rococo minuet, punctured by rude octaves, followed by the ‘beast’ of the roaring, relentless moto perpetuo. Though I’d have liked more dynamic contrast underlying the sforzandi in that Allegretto, Rangell cleared the air and gave us listening space amid the odd-ball syncopations by his judicious insertion of breath marks. Fresh as a daisy, indeed.
Besides his comments introducing each composer—modest, candid, and explanatory—Rangell gave us other elegant, personal touches. He begged the audience’s indulgence to play the Stravinsky as a flourish before intermission, to highlight Beethoven’s Charleston-like dotted-eighth rhythms as much as allow the Ives to stand alone as a monument requiring concentration. (There were more to come in his reading of the Ives.) And so the pianist picked his way through Stravinsky’s tiny, bristly minefield of Piano Rag Music, which bends an ear to American ragtime, like his contemporaneous Histoire du Soldat. Then we took a welcome break before he opened Ives’ majestic floodgates and wielded a sword of truth to clear the briar-patchy Concord Sonata.
Of the Ives, a piece of longstanding fascination and study, Rangell remarked: “It’s the second of two long, difficult piano sonatas written between 1900 and 1920. These large structures have language unlike anything else, with textures, keys, and rhythms of incredible invention. The swirl of hymns, marches, and ideas causes problems for uninitiated listeners. Each movement ends with a consolidation of many fragments. It’s like jazz piano: in the moment! nothing rote! not entertainment! cutting edge!”
The Concord presents four moody, dynamic portraits of famed Transcendentalists, to whose work Ives was enthusiastically introduced by his wife, Harmony Twitchell: Ralph Waldo Emerson, its founding philosopher; author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a fervid if casual acolyte; neighbor Alcotts including teacher/father and Louisa May, author of Little Women; and the wayward, elusive godson, Henry David Thoreau. The textures are thorny, the melodies often cantankerous yet marvelously elegiac. The most obvious Beethoven link is Ives’ frequent repetition amid constant variation of the Fate Motif opening the Fifth Symphony, suggesting the difficulties Emerson encountered in propounding his philosophy.
Emerson unfolds as steadfast and hymnic, with tidal ebb and flow, weighing in with extremes of density and gravity, majesty and funk, calm and ferocity. (I wonder if Vernon Duke heard that powerful descending theme before or after he wrote “Autumn in New York”?) Rangell subsumed the enormous technical challenges with equanimity and grace, eliciting Ives’ post-Romantic elegance without dimming his refulgent zeal. Indeed, he rendered the contextual chaos virtually conversational.
Zesty, waggish Hawthorne cuts a dapper, casual figure in a rambunctious scherzo filled with cakewalks and clusters on consecutive black keys. Some interpreters play these with a 10.5 inch board, but Rangell used his forearm, which evoked a gently shimmering glissando. Ives’s quotables as ever include folksong quotes, hymn snippets, march beats, Foster ballads, Gottschalk snatches, many echoed from Three Places in New England. Brief ragtime bits parallel Stravinsky, though it’s unlikely the two had heard each other’s echoes of (or responses to) the emerging Jazz Age.
After the storm, the calm: The Alcotts ponders domestic tranquility, and Thoreau’s themes refract woodland scenes, fireside songs, and a final turn for the author’s famed Walden-side, if hardly Pan-like, flute-playing. Well, Rangell simply whistled Thoreau’s flute line! Never mind inviting up a flautist to play sixteen bars! Independent, homespun, and refreshingly original—how’s that for a reaffirmation of the self-determining power of individualism?