J. S. Bach’s "Habit of Perfection": Andrew Rangell

Andy Rangell at his Well-Tempered Clavier

Andy Rangell at his Well-Tempered Clavier

The Bradley Effect is by definition unmeasurable. The recession, or depression, is unfathomable. So what can we think and talk about to break the obsession with questions that have no answers until the night of November 4? We repair to the consolations of J. S. Bach, and in this conversation to the perfect nest of piano masterpieces that Daniel Barenboim and others refer to as the Old Testament, the 48 preludes and fugues conceived in 1722 and refined over the last 28 years of Bach’s life, the set known as The Well-Tempered Clavier. We repair geographically to the studio of the “quirky, imaginative, intelligent” piano master Andrew Rangell.

I think of Andrew as the Glenn Gould of our neighborhood, our moment. Like so many Bach pianists he grew up with Gould’s great first recording of the Goldberg Variations from 1955, the record that announced the “birth of a legend.” (See the equally famous 1981 re-recording in exquisite video). Like very few others, Andrew Rangell has grown into Gould’s roles as an original writer and performer in celebrated recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Partitas and French and English Suites, also the Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Waltzes and much 20th Century music from Janacek, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Like Gould but for different reasons (hand injuries in Andrew’s case), he has come to avoid the public performance and to invent his own fabulous and laborious techniques of recording and editing his interpretations. Look here for Andrew Rangell’s available recordings.

I came to Andrew this time to ask what an immersion in The Well-Tempered Clavier does for one’s mind and spirit — this endlessly extended and refined work that also remains, as Andrew says, “minimal music at its best,” music of “the great middle way,” music that “encourages mind, fingers and heart” and that never turns anyone away. The Well-Tempered, for short, becomes the musical metaphor of the long human course in hearing multiplicities of voices — polyphony is the musical word — and their accents, inflections, their placements and interactions. It also becomes a “semi-religious experience,” says Andrew, the non-believer:

Bach was a man of God in the most overt and simple sense… But there is a fusion in Bach that is just mind-boggling to me. It has to do with the intersection of Man and God — and not at Yale. We’re talking about a composer who seemed to write for his own enrichment and edification and the need to enlarge himself. This was a person who studied deeply and who then produced; and even in his secular music there is a religious aura. There is something in which he is writing to God and he is writing for himself. And then everything else falls into place. It turns out that everything he is writing can stimulate and be used pedagogically. It can show young fingers where to go. It can show young composers how to think; it can clarify things about voice-leading. To study the Well-Tempered is to study the treatise of all time on harmony. Somehow God and human concerns are fused in a very profound way. I speak as a person otherwise irreligious. I consider myself a kind of secularized person. Nonetheless maybe music is a kind of religion and Bach is in a way always the high priest, just because of the richness there. Sometimes these days I quote Glenn Gould who said, “I believe in God — Bach’s God.” Through Saint Glenn, I can go there easily. I feel deeply the man is an ocean. He is fathomless. Over and over again he had, to quote Hopkins, “the habit of perfection.” He is godlike. When I practice Bach I feel, whatever my own struggles, whatever my own difficulties, I am sustained by it. There is no flaw there.

Andrew Rangell in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 21, 2008

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