It's obviously no accident that so many concert pianists play so much Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin. These were composers who were pianists themselves, loved the instrument, loved what it could do, and loved what they did with it. In the case of Polish composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), he produced possibly the greatest number of poetic and dramatic piano pieces of all, so it takes a pianist with a strong poetic sensibility and a reasonably forceful dramatic flair to communicate his music well. American concert pianist and Steinway Artist Andrew Rangell possesses just such a sensibility and flair, along with an uncommonly thoughtful approach to the music.
A year or so ago I reviewed another album by Mr. Rangell, that one called A Folk Song Runs Through It, and I said at the time that he practices a light, often delicate touch, while maintaining a good deal of power in reserve, making his technique not only impressively virtuosic but uncommonly sensitive and diverse as well. A short biography of Mr. Rangell tells us he holds a doctorate in piano and a while back recovered from a severe hand injury that sidelined his career for some seven years. I wondered at the time of the first review if sometimes tragedy couldn't be a blessing in disguise if one used it to one's advantage, in this case forcing Rangell into a style he might not have adopted earlier. Anyway, I also wondered back then if we would ever hear him return to recording Chopin (he had released the Mazurkas for the Dorian label in 2003). Now, he has returned, with a recital of some of Chopin's most-challenging piano works.
Rangell tells us in a booklet note that he chose the pieces in the recital for their "conceptual daring and architectural grandeur," pieces that "put completely to rest the dubious but long-held view of Chopin as the poetic miniaturist--and they provide a vivid and haunting intimation of what might have followed had Chopin lived longer." Fair enough, although Mr. Rangell's opinion still doesn't discount the idea that Chopin was one of the finest "poetic miniaturists" the world has ever known. He was that, indeed, yet, as Rangell contends, much more.
Anyway, leading off the program is the Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61, from 1846 the last of Chopin's long, extended-form pieces. It's a rather daring way to begin an album because it is not one of the composer's more-popular works. In fact, it's one of his most-difficult works, being in no way sentimental, melancholy, or even particularly Romantic. In fact, it's rather modern in its development of form over content, structure over melody. But the choice shows us that Mr. Rangell is not just a virtuosic pianist but one of intellect as well. This piece confirms Rangell's assertion that there is more to Chopin than mere sentiment; there is intellect involved as well.
Next, we get the little Nocturne in E-flat major, No. 2, Op. 55, from 1844, a fairly elaborate work considering its size. Here, Rangell demonstrates his lightness of touch and flowing style, a sweet, tender manner that eschews any hint of self-indulgent nostalgia.
After that is Chopin's Bolero, Op. 19, an early and oft-overlooked work from 1833. With Bolero, Rangell gets a chance to enjoy himself in a bit of showmanship. The piece is colorful, and Rangell isn't afraid to set his academic inclinations aside for a moment and give full rein to his virtuosic side. However, that doesn't mean he allows the piece to fall into anything bombastic; it's just clean, well-controlled fun.
Rangell's includes three of Chopin's four Ballades on the program: No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23, No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47, and No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52. The first of the ballades comes off gracefully and poignantly under Rangell's guidance. Again, he displays a way of playing that seems to sort out every phrase and reduce it to its simplest and most-easily understandable form, while helping us appreciate the complexities of the piece all the more. Rangell's approach is never to exaggerate or aggrandize anything, yet makes us stop and say to ourselves, "Wait, I must listen to this. I've never heard it expressed so accurately and succinctly before."
The third and fourth ballades sound elegant, rhapsodic, and rapturous by turns. I've always enjoyed the third for its theme later adopted as "I'm always chasing rainbows," which Rangell treats with tender care. He shows an affection for these works that never softens them.
In addition, we get the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45, which Rangell describes as an "improvised meditation," with "Brahmsian textures...majesty and mystery." Under Rangell, this prelude has a dreamy, meditative quality to it that some pianists seem to overlook (well, to be fair, most pianists overlook the piece entirely). It's a delightful work all the way around, its melodies shining brilliantly in Rangell's hands.
Rangell ends the program with another Nocturne, this one No. 2 in E major, Op. 62. Throughout the nocturne, Rangell remains true to his convictions: that Chopin was no mere sentimental miniaturist but a composer of deep intellectual feeling.
In short, Rangall's performances never appear that of an academician simply playing the notes by rote. There is much feeling here, strong emotion, but well under control so as to demonstrate the composer's intentions all the better. It's a neat trick, stripping each work to its barest minimum with mathematical precision yet maintaining its poignancy and beauty. But that's Rangell: magisterial and magical.
Mr. Rangell produced the album, Tom Stephenson engineered it, and Brad Michel edited and mastered it for Steinway & Sons, recording the music at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts in July 2013. The sound of the Steinway Model D #586518 Rangell plays is about as lifelike as one could imagine. It joins the ranks the best piano recordings I've ever heard, in fact. Not only is the piano clear and true, the venue imparts a pleasant ambient bloom to the affair that makes you feel you're in the room with the soloist. Yet there is not so much reverberation that it drowns out the piano's rich tone and clarity, which remain resonant and transparent throughout, without ever sounding hard or edgy.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: