Beethoven and Ives: it’s getting to be a Thing. And why not? Two of music’s most original, even eccentric, composers, the latter of whom revered the former, challenge the concentration of audiences and both the chops and the intelligence of the performers who attack them. And, by conincidence, two such recitals by leading pianists occurred within the span of a week: Stephen Drury’s essaying the 30th Sonata of Beethoven and the First Sonata of Ives last Wednesday came just before Sunday’s Tufts recital by Andrew Rangell which featured a mix of Beethoven, including a late sonata, and the mighty Ives Concord.
Rangell is widely known as one of the most original, deep-thinking pianists on the planet (some would read this as a synonym for eccentricity, and there is a bit of that, in the tradition of Glenn Gould, Russell Sherman and Richard Goode). And the original thinking doesn’t end with the playing. For this program, Rangell treated the audience to something in the shape of a lec-dem, pausing between pieces (and sometimes movements of pieces) to offer history, commentary, and a bit of analysis. Virgil Thomson used to call these running commentaries “liquid program notes,” and while they impart useful and sometimes fascinating information, we’re not sure we’d want to see it as a regular feature—it does make for a long concert.
Rangell began with a work of which he said he had been largely unaware until recently, the Polonaise, op. 89, written on the order of a Polish empress attending the Congress of Vienna in 1814. In Rangell’s telling, Beethoven sat her emissary down, improvised three polonaises and asked him which one he preferred, then notated the chosen one. It’s not, obviously, a profound masterpiece, but it’s full of grandiose passagework and a darker B-section that presages Chopin. Rangell’s reading was, it seemed, considerably faster than most, with impressive cross-hand technique in the high-stepping main tune, to which he contributed his own brand of dramatic Luftpausen that delights by not actually constituting rubato, as the beat remained quite precise.
That charming opener was followed by the Sonata No. 28 in A Major, op. 101, generally considered to be the first of Beethoven’s late period example. Like most of his late works, it is full of dense motivic relationships and structural interlocking, fused to an improvisatory, mercurial and stream-of-consciousness expressiveness. The gentle but densely packed and tightly structured first movement came in a little on the slow side, setting up a strong contrast to the bravura proto-Chopinesque alla marcia outer sections of the second movement. That in turn contrasts with the dark, canonic center section introduced by what Rangell characterized as a “fanfare” figure that turns into a gnarly little motif used in accompaniment. The slow movement really is halfway between a movement and an introduction to the fourth (something similar happens in the Waldstein sonata), but also features an unusual recap of the first movement principal theme, before hurtling into the much larger-scale finale, contrapuntally active (most of the development section is fugal) and sneaking in a rumbling bass that recalled the “fanfare” from the march. Rangell deliberately took the risk of breaking the sonata’s continuity by stopping after each movement to comment on what was to follow, even between the attached slow movement and finale, then going back to pick up the connection. While the commentary was instructive, we hope he doesn’t repeat that experiment. In the event, his performance was calm to the point of stasis in the slow movement, and full of dramatic pauses amid the onrush of the finale. He’s also one for dramatic theatrical touches, like dropping his hands to his side and yet getting back in time for the next beat, that make watching his performances is as enjoyable as hearing them.
The first half closed with a remarkable early Beethoven, the 24 Variations on an Arietta by Righini, WoO 65 (1790). The tune is about as dippy as can be, but as in the Diabelli variations of 30 years later and even the theme of the Eroica variations Beethoven always managed to make something out of nothing—it was inherent in his genius, and as in the other cases, the unpromising tune yielded colors, rhythms, and depths of insight. Rangell paused dramatically at the end of each phrase of the tune (a bit longer than Beethoven’s rests), as if to say “really? You’re going with this?” but then invested each variation with its full due of expression. Things get rather more complex after variation 12, and toward the end Rangell swept forward into the pell-mell rush preceding the surprisingly soft landing. He made a strong case for this arcana.
Rangell reminded us after the concert that his first public recital, nearly 40 years ago, consisted of Beethoven and Ives, specifically the Diabelli variations and the Concord sonata. Thus, he has been an attentive and devoted exponent of this most famous of the three Ives piano sonatas (the two numbered ones—No. 1 from 1909 and this one from 1915-20, formally called Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass. 1840-1860—and the “Three-Page Sonata” of 1905). All are in Ives’s spikiest idiom, sometimes sounding like random chaos but in actuality closely reasoned and carefully structured. Of them, only the Concord is in any sense pictorial, constituting four character portraits, with some scenic specificity, of key figures in the Transcendentalist movement living cheek by jowl in Concord, and most of the time even in concord despite their disparate personalities. The fearsome technical demands have limited it to advocacy of dedicated champions, but every few years, one of our local Ivesians (Rangell, Drury, Jeremy Denk and Donald Berman are the ones who come to mind) reminds us of its wonders. Rangell last performed it locally in 2014, reviewed here.
Ives’s own comments on the sonata, perhaps the longest program note in history, explain the philosophical and esthetic aims of the Concord. The most fascinating technical discussion of it is in J. Peter Burkholder’s brilliant exegesis of Ives’s use of borrowed music, All Made from Tunes. In his view, the core of the sonata is the tune opening the third movement, “The Alcotts,” which is also the most simply set of the movements. It is, in material part, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but with a little twist: in his usual punning way, Ives uses these notes in the context of a hymn tune that starts the same way, Charles Zeuner’s Missionary Chant (“Ye Christian Heralds”). The stentorian opening of the first movement, “Emerson,” actually contains two fragments from the Alcotts theme, separately developed. Also as is Ives’s wont, he saves the statement of the actual themes for later, starting as it were with the development section (the identification of this procedure was perhaps Burkholder’s greatest achievement in clarifying Ives’s compositional methods). While there are many themes and motifs that Ives refracts in this and the other movements, two principal ones in Emerson stick out for the listener: the Beethoven motto and a more lyrical one, beginning with a descending pentatonic phrase that anachronistically conjures up the popular song “Moonlight in Vermont.” The second movement scherzo, “Hawthorne,” uses materials Ives also worked into several other pieces, notably the scherzo of his Fourth Symphony, in which somber hymn-like passages are constantly crowded out by raucous, phantasmagorical, jazzy and ragtime ones, contrasting the pull of the fleshly world against high-minded sobriety. The domestic calm of the Alcott household is shown, by slow evolution of the pace and harmonic complexity of the music, to embody also the moral backbone that Ives saw undergirding the Transcendentalists’ abstract and mystical principles. The finale is “Thoreau,” in which Ives does some magical tone-painting of mists over Walden Pond, and binds his philosophers to nature, finally by integrating all his themes. There’s even an optional flute part at the end, a reference to the instrument Thoreau would play sometimes (and a vehicle for an important restatement of the key melodies); as he did in 2014 (and may have done every time since 1977, we don’t know), Rangell opted to whistle that line, which works fine for us.
The esthetic challenge to a performer, never mind the technical ones, first lies in deciding whether to chart a path for the listener through the dense undergrowth of Ivesian complexity, by creating a long arch and sweep, or to live in the moment and present each episode in its full and kaleidoscopic intensity, leaving the listener to detect and pick up the threads. Rangell seemed to attempt a middle path: he was fully aware of the teleological structure of each movement and the work as a whole, yet—and this is characteristic of his personality as a pianist, no matter the work—he can’t resist admiring each tree in the forest. Sometimes we wished he had voiced his performance to pick out those key phrases and fragments where they were not Hauptstimme. Maybe he disagrees with Burkholder’s analysis. At any rate, he held the audience rapt for the full 45 minutes and no listener could conclude otherwise than that Rangell loves this music and conveys it with all his soul and all forty fingers. The reception was vociferously in favor.
And after all that, an encore! Rangell said he needed to come down from the Ives high, and what better way than with Bach (“It always comes down to Bach,” he said from the stage). In this case it was the Sarabande from the French Suite No. 1.