Composers of all stripes and eras face the daunting task of (a) finding/creating material worthy of their attention (b) developing or “working it out” in fresh, inventive ways. Successfully mastering the form of Theme and Variations is an accomplishment of the highest order that separates the masters from talented tunesmiths.
Pianist Andrew Rangell has done music lovers a huge favour by bringing this set of five such works into focus.
Where better to start his survey than with Franz Joseph Haydn? From the initial dotted theme, with ever-so discreet accompaniment, the ear is immediately piqued for the journey to come. As thoughtful as Rangell’s opening was, the tendency towards affectation (taken to extreme lengths in the coda) robbed the music of its quiet flow, becoming a variation on its own before the vrai variants began.
Once there, the performance was a marvel of touch, balance and tone. Happily, subtle changes on the repeated sections belied the notion of hearing the “same thing over again.” Absolutely sublime was the syncopation, marvellously tugging against the pulse; the near coquettish flavour of the filigree-rich turn of theme magically set the table for the ensuing drama and a coda that can’t help but demonstrate how much Beethoven must have learned from “Papa.”
Without a doubt, the historical (at times hysterical) curiosity of the disc is Bizet’s ode to the semi-tone. It’s a buffet of forms and styles from César Franck, Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin, replete with cheap trills and cheesy tremolos. Thankfully, there are no repeats. Rangell turns in a bravura reading that is at one with his innate sense of fun, causing the time to pass amiably. Name that Tune devotees have a worthy addition to their next classical music challenge!
Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne is a twin revelation. The composer has crafted a Bachian homage that truly unfolds in magnificent fashion (saving a seemingly tame scale to close off the work is a master touch of understanding). Even with just two hands to employ, the work is unmistakably symphonic, comprised of solemn ideas which evolve with poise, then passion before a tinge of “Humoresque” lightens the emotional load. Rangell delves deep, providing a compelling testament to both composers, readily sailing through the Bach busyness that drives the music to its satisfying close. Let’s hope for a further renaissance on the concert stage.
Rangell deftly places Brahms’ early opus in the genre (of which, all taken, few could match, much less surpass) to provide the listener with a lesser-known but wonderfully constructed set. The delicious bits of dissonance in the theme once again refute those who consider the multi-faceted composer to be a “traditionalist.” Frequently weaving in the harmonic ambiguity (and possibility) of B flat and A sharp and forging chromatic bass lines that Bizet can only envy, already establishes Brahms as a worthy champion of the form. As with the Haydn, Rangell—to these ears—flirts too often with excessive push and pull (notably Variation 1, where the score might be required to ascertain the time signature). Yet from the delectable music box beginning to Variation 5 (no dry canon exercise here) forward, the performance coalesces, providing many memorable moments.
The album concludes with Schubert’s beloved Impromptu which owes its theme to the composer’s Rosamunde. The result is decidedly frustrating. The presentation of the melodic line is nothing short of self-indulgent overkill. With the happy exception of Variations 2 and 5 (the quicker, busier ones) the music can’t shake its preponderance of plodding vertical declamations. The tone, nonetheless, is frequently spectacular, providing the listener with beautifully rung top voices and a sturdy, clean and clear bass. If Rangell would just let these glorious lines sing, he’d be a worthy proponent of the oeuvre in the manner of Alfred Brendel, whose recordings still set the bar. JWR