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Andrew Rangell and The Art of Fugue

Andrew Rangell
David Shriver
Andrew Rangell

An artist of uncommon insight interprets - and talks about - one of Bach's most imposing compositions, and Martin Pearlman leads Boston Baroque in Magnificat on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Magnificat, BWV 243 (translation) - Tamara Matthews, soprano;  Deanne Meek, mezzo-soprano;  Mary Phillips, alto;  Don Frazure, tenor;  Stephen Powell, baritone;  Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman, conductor

The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080: Contrapunctus I, IV, IX, and XIV - Andrew Rangell, piano

Hear host Brian McCreath's full interview with Andrew Rangell using the player above.

Interview transcript:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm here with Andrew Rangel, who has recorded lots of Bach over the years, but most recently The Art of Fugue, an amazing set, one of the last things that Bach wrote. And Andrew, thank you for taking some time today to talk about it.

Andrew Rangell [00:00:13] You're most welcome.

Brian McCreath [00:00:15] Andrew, you became well known very early on for Bach and your interpretations of Bach. And I wonder if you can tell me a little bit about how Bach initially arrived in your life as a musician.

Andrew Rangell [00:00:29] Brian the answer is very simple. Two words. Glenn Gould. When I was a little boy, Gould was just releasing his Goldberg Variations, his D minor Concerto, his B-flat Partita, his Italian Concerto. And I happened to hear these and it was so vivid. The playing was so immediate and so animated. I just sat up and thought, this is just marvelous. And not just the playing, I mean the music.

Brian McCreath [00:01:00] That's really fascinating to me because when I hear your playing, I don't necessarily hear Glenn Gould. I hear Andrew Rangell. But do you count him among the influences in your actual interpretations in the way you play?

Andrew Rangell [00:01:13] Absolutely. Gould remains a deep influence on me, but one over the years begins to part ways, even with one's most revered models. And what I hope the listener will hear, listening to almost any of my Bach, is at least something like the clarity and the attention to a voice leading and to articulation that Gould sort of set the standard by, I might add also that an enthusiasm for ornamentation is something that Glenn Gould sort of imparted to me. I mean, just the amazing intensity and purpose and clarity of all of his ornaments and sometimes very unusual choices of ornaments - I mean, a slow trill, not just the same kind of thing - I think this affected me and opened up a world that I have explored and in exploring have gone different directions very often,

Brian McCreath [00:02:26] Given that approach to ornaments and its reflection on the real intensity of purpose that one must approach Bach with, I just can't imagine how daunting the Art of Fugue must be, because there is so little that Bach gives you to go on. It all comes down to the performer. How am I going to do this? How long did you practice or play the Art of Fugue before you thought, OK, now I might be ready to record this?

Andrew Rangell [00:02:55] Well, that's that's a very good and interesting question. Let me say first, Brian, that I came to the Art of Fugue in my middle age and literally for the first time. It was not a piece that I was very familiar with. And my journey through Bach went through a great many things, performing and recording much of the standard repertoire with Bach, which is very challenging and very rewarding. And about four years ago, wanting a kind of place to exist, a kind of refuge, a kind of nourishment, and being aware that the Art of Fugue was an area that I had not really examined, I started looking at it carefully. And from the get go, I realized that this was a very unusual piece. And just to clarify, virtually Bach's last work, which remained maddeningly unfinished right at the end of his life, but a piece that resists any easy solutions, a very complex and abstract work. And I began to learn it and to be drawn into it, wondering whether I could overcome the essential problem of thinking about the entire unity of the piece and the diversity within it, which is the fundamental problem of how to characterize the 18 pieces - 14 of them fugues and four of them canons - in a meaningful way that I could do, with confidence and with the confidence that I had something unique or personal to say with this piece. And it wasn't until essentially after three years that I said to myself, I feel that I want to do this now and I'm ready to do it.

Brian McCreath [00:05:06] You talked about the the primary challenge of this piece being the the tension between an overall arc that takes you from Point A to whatever it is, Point Z we'll just say, versus the individual ways, to use your word, the affect of each part of that arc. Do you feel like Bach was writing this in order to be performed, or was he really just sort of playing out things in his head that he had to get out as he entered his later years? Did he need simply just to do this to get it on paper?

Andrew Rangell [00:05:41] Well, we have to say that in the last years of his life, Bach pushed aside almost all things of this world and involved himself with challenges which were, in his mind, for himself, God, and posterity, pieces like the second book of the Well-Tempered [Clavier], which is a unity, which is not conceived as a cyclical piece, I mean, as something that unfolds. But it's a unity in its own way. The Musical Offering is a unity in its own way, and that probably is best heard as a whole. The Goldberg Variations has a magic as a whole piece, and that is just a breathtaking monument. The Art of Fugue, though, is problematical because it is variations in a sense, on this very short, austere theme presented as the theme of the first fugue. But the fact that all the variations are themselves lengthy, involved fugues makes the sense of variation, the sense of unfolding incredibly difficult, to the extent that one really wonders whether there is really an arc of any kind, of any narrative kind. And I myself don't really feel that this work is fundamentally a work intended to be taken in best from beginning to end.

Brian McCreath [00:07:20] And so to dive in with each of these pieces, you used the word affect before - and just to sort of flesh that out, it's the character, it's what you're saying in each particular piece - Bach left very, very little, almost nothing, really, in direction in saying what he thought the affect of any particular piece was. It means you have to come to those conclusions on your own. What tools do you use to say in this particular Contrapunctus, as they're known, this is the affect I want. What tools do you use to come to that conclusion?

Andrew Rangell [00:07:55] With Bach, we have certain things to go by that are sometimes explicit and sometimes in a kind of context. And it apart from the Art of Fugue, when you look at Bach and you look at certain things in a concerto form and see what the tradition is there and what the realities of that presentation, or the suites, where there are general parameters for all of the essential movements of a suite. When you look at his more abstract works, the Preludes and Fugues, for instance, the key has to do with the nature of a fugue subject and the treatment of that fugue subject. The Preludes and Fugues have an amazing degree of malleability.

[00:08:45] The Art of Fugue is a yet more abstract piece in the sense that the things that separate one fugue from another are fewer. I mean, the thematic material remains the same, the key remains the same, the texture remains the same. And yet when you're acclimated to all of this, you notice many, many things that are subtle and not so subtle. And just to go to a very obvious example, when you get to Fugue Nine, this is a little bit later on in the piece where Bach takes the liberty to begin by introducing material not heard before. And the opening theme in this [sings theme] it seems to have a character of some propulsion. What Bach does is, he eventually reintroduces material that has been known from the beginning in a slower way. And that blend is an astonishing change from anything we have heard before. But the character of the piece is really determined by the opening of that fugal subject, which is very much unlike anything we have heard. So you take your clues from the inside, I mean, and they are more implicit than explicit. And in this particular piece, they can be extremely subtle. And you can't push too hard against these boundaries. In other words, you can't create a kind of artificial diversity. You have to work within the framework of the piece. And this, again, goes to the question of whether the piece really was intended as a kind of single experience, which I tend to doubt.

Brian McCreath [00:10:45] That's fantastic. That's so illuminating, just to just to hear you describe what it is you're looking for that will lead you to that character. But, one particular part of this piece must come down simply to your personal imagination. And that is the last note. Because this piece was left unfinished, a fugue is chugging along and yet stops cold. And there are any number of ways to do this, none of them invalid, probably. But you hear this done in many ways through a series of recordings. But your approach to the very end of the piece, the last fugue, tell me how you thought through how you wanted to end this piece.

Andrew Rangell [00:11:31] Well, I think for the listener, we should we should explain that the way not only the fact that this final fugue is unfinished, but even the way it is unfinished is kind of a breathtaking and shocking thing in terms of Bach's own life. It is assumed that, or it was kind of advertised, if you will, by C.P.E. Bach and the other publishers - The Art of Fugue was published posthumously, a year after Bach died - and part of its advertisement was that the great master expired before he could complete the final fugue and in effect left the stage of the Earth, even, you know, even as he left the stage of this amazing drama that he had created. What is also astonishing is that, let's just talk about the nature of this fugue. The fugue is unfinished and it was designated in the published version as a three-voice fugue. What we have is three fugal subjects which have been given a full, fugal exposition. And then there is the very beginning of an integration of this material when suddenly, very early on in that phase, the music stops.

[00:13:05] Now, many scholars have come to a different conclusion, namely that a complex fugue of this kind had to have been worked out fully, that Bach wouldn't just sort of stop in mid-sentence and expire, but must have, at least in his mind, if not in sketches or even a manuscript that was not found, written a conclusion of this fugue, because that's how fugues work. The material must have been integrated in his mind at the end before each individual fugue theme was set forth. And it is further noticed, and this is a profound reality, that the three themes that we do have in this final fugue are compatible completely with the very opening theme, the mother theme, if you will, and that this was, in fact, Bach's intention, to bring back all four [themes]: the three that we hear and then also integrated with the opening theme as a final quadruple fugue. In any case, what we have does end, so to speak, in midsentence. So, do you make an artificial kind of preparation? Do you treat the final note as an intended conclusion and therefore present it in a in a musical way? That would be, to me, a kind of something that's not justified and that's artificial. However, it has to be said that that is one's sort of built in musical impulse. You come to an end, and you kind of in some way have to fight hard against the instinct to shape it in some way to bring attention to it, in fact, as the final note. So, actually, in recording this piece, I had to do a number of takes of just the ending measures to try to play it in such a way that the material was audible and not exactly just sort of thrown away at the end. But neither was it heightened in any particular way. So I wanted to preserve just a kind of mid, you know, midsentence, just cessation, if you will. And I hope I did that. But it's a funny problem to have actually.

Brian McCreath [00:15:44] A very unusual problem, I think. Why did you decide to record this at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport?

Andrew Rangell [00:15:52] Well, for me, it was a combination of very obvious things, one of which is that I have a close relation to the people at Rockport. I have played there for a long time and I love the new hall. I'm very fond of the new piano. And it is a beautiful place. It is a quiet recording studio. And it just, it worked very well. And in fact, I made a second recording there, which will come out very shortly.

Brian McCreath [00:16:28] If I might ask you, there was a point in your life when injury affected your playing trajectory. And I just wonder, as you came back from that hand injury, was there a particular role that Bach's music played in steering back to a place where you wanted to be?

Andrew Rangell [00:16:47] Well, I would say that the main role that Bach played in that is the same role Bach has always played for me: to be a source of the deepest satisfaction, stability, personal identity. That said, I have tried to continue being a musician through more than 20 years now of being somewhat compromised. And I actually will say something that I have been, here, I will tell you something I have been reluctant to say explicitly, for instance, on any of my many recordings over the last twenty years, which is that, to one degree or another, I have have been always grappling with a particular kind of compromise in my right hand. We know that playing the piano is a difficult thing and technical problems exist just constantly and have to be solved. I was pushed toward recording and away from concertizing by a hand injury in the early 90s. And in some funny way, I believe it suited me a little bit temperamentally to be able to concentrate on repertoire in a particular way and bring it to a kind of fruition in recording, rather than, if I may say, suffer the slings and arrows of running around playing all the time, which is its own great reward. As you can see, I share even a slightly perverse Gouldian notion of wanting to preserve a kind of intimate relation with these, with a whole variety of works. But again, to come back to your question, Bach has always been maybe the most profound area, and the largest meaningful area of a single composer, other than Beethoven, of course, who remains kind of the other pillar.

Brian McCreath [00:19:08] Andrew Rangel, thank you for your time today.

Andrew Rangell [00:19:10] Thank you. I appreciate it.