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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  • Thank you, Chris. Oh, this brought me back to my early years with classical music and my love of Bach. Your instinct to lead us back to the timeless and beautiful in these anxious times is most welcome. It was lovely it was to hear your pas de deux with Andrew Rangell. Thanks again.

  • olivercranglesparrot

    Mr. Rangell and Mr. Lydon: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. (Sorry Mr. Emerson, three were necessary).

    Mr. Rangell really brings this music to life oh so well both in word and playing/interpretation.

    Vermeer, for me, meets some of the criteria that Mr. Rangell mentions; transcendent and quiet warmth, like Bach. Bach brings me back to earth and reminds me of the beauty of listening and observing life through hearing. Also, the observing of the listening. I feel I become more human listening to Bach, which is weird for how can this guy tap into this or touch this type of mystery? … as Vermeer does with looking and seeing for me. Bach pulls me gently to listen to what life offers and thus simply become. Amazing. Bach unclutters the clutter, enlarges possibilities instead of narrowing them.

    One more: Thank you.

  • George Mathew

    Chris, Andrew and Bach — the ultimate 3-part Ricercar.

  • George Mathew

    When I was an undergraduate some 20 years ago, I read that Pablo Casals began every day by playing a prelude and fugue from the WTC. It was, according to Casals, ” a kind of benediction on the house.”

    I have since tried to open every day by playing a prelude and fugue from the WTC. It does throw a kind of sacred poise on the day that follows.

    In the last few days, I’ve noticed the same quality when one listens to this conversation. Thank you Chris and Andrew for making that kind of poise, serenity and “benediction” even if a secular, “non-Yale”, and decidedly 21st Century one.

  • Dear Chris Lydon,

    Thank you for your smorgasbord of culture. I have enjoyed your programs on NPR, where my radio stays, and these gifts you have given us give us hope that there is still an essence of grace and elegance in our culture. It is so encouraging to know that there are those, like you, who are the modern patrons of art, music and critical thinking. I’d wish you could be cloned and sent into every school system in the nation as a group of new teachers! I suppose if NPR was streamed into classrooms it might come close to that. When I was a Fine Arts major lo, those many years ago at William and Mary, even the working classes appreciated the finer things of life, and aspired to be able to promote them and enjoy them. That was the 50’s, and I have grieved over the coarsing and dumbing-down that has taken place since then. Thank you again for pushing so mightily on the other end of the cultural see-saw.

    Thank you again,

    Mary Curro

    Portsmouth, VA


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  • Margy Koontz Siebert

    TO: Andy Rangell, pianist

    I met you in in the summer of 1962 when I was a viola/piano student at RRMC, CO. I loved your playing, and your friendly personality, and I still have a group picture which you signed. A few years ago I came across one of your recordings (Intimate Works) and bought it. I am happy you have continued to play and become a well-known, outstanding musician.

    I grew up in NM and CO (family members still in Boulder), and now live in Akron. OH. Akron’s Tuesday Musical Concert Series has featured high-quality musicians for over 100 years — it would be wonderful if you evwould ever wish to perform here, perhaps as their Margaret Baxstresser pianist. In recent years we have heard pianists Garrick Ohlsson, Olga Kern, Arnaldo Cohen, Jonathan Biss, Marc-Andre Hamelin; other soloists including Hilary Hahn, Midori, Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming, and various groups. The audience is always very appreciative. The TMC group also provides free tickets to students, to encourage them to hear classical music. I read that you are giving fewer live performances now, however, after having dealt with with dystonia.

    Count me as one of your (long-lost) fans!

    Margy Koontz Siebert

  • Maggie Wells

    Dear Mr. Lydon
    I recently acquired a recording of Mr. Rangell’s Goldberg Variations and it is actually PAINFULLY beautiful— as is his rendition of the Toccata in F-Sharp Minor on the same recording.
    Hearing Mr.Rangell helped me to appreciate Bach and musical interpretation on a deeper level.
    That was simply wonderful.
    Thank you!
    Maggie Wells

  • chris

    Yes, Maggie Wells, and thank you. But the pain passes, and the revelations stick. In my case, Andrew Rangell’s playing encourages to have the experience myself, slowly, fumblingly, happily finding my way through Prelude 22 even today! As I like to say, you meet a better class of people when you’re just sitting there on the piano bench, with the Well-Tempered Clavier scores before you…

  • Hollo again, Mr Lyden,
    Just to clarify, when I said I found Rangell’s Goldberg’s Variations to be “PAINFULLY” beautiful, I meant so beautiful as to cause pain—excruciatingly beautiful.
    And I am going to forward your wonderful interview with him to a few friends.
    Best regards,
    Maggie Wells

  • Jon B. Oakleaf

    My wife’s the musician in the family with a masters in organ from the University of Iowa. I joke I married our organist so I didn’t have to put up with a woman who wanted to watch sports all weekend. My own musical education has come largely from Pubic Radio and CD liner notes. We can converse surprisingly well. About the only time Jane undeletes an expletive is in relation to “that stinkin’ Bach.”

    Both of us are devoted fans of Gould. And, of course, virtually all of Bach’s organ works. I especially enjoy the Suites for Solo Cello and we have, I think, some seven different recordings in our music library. In addition to the standard excellent performances by Starker, Ma, Rastroprovich, Zwill Bailey, Bylsma there is an odd one by Paolo Pandolfo. Very different, excellent playing, but it is not what one would consider “performance practice.” Instead, it is very lyrical and music I could see as accompaniment for the Olympic dance competition where ribbons are used. If flows gracefully and lyrically. Though not traditional, nevertheless it is a delight to listen to for it’s own sake.
    And so I find Rangell’s playing. Not what I am given to understand is

  • Jon B. Oakleaf

    (darned laptop! – sent it before intended). So, let me finish. Rangell’s playing may not be what we consider as “performance practice,” nevertheless it is most satisfying to listen to. There are times I feel we must set aside traditional guidelines and enjoy something for what it is. And this IS enjoyable! I feel we have another, but slightly different, Gould to appreciate! “Next to the Word of God, Music deserves the greatest honor and highest praise.” Martin Luther. Yep, we’re Lutherans, the liberal ELCA ones.