“5 Variations” = HAYDN: Variations in F Minor; BIZET: Variations Chromatiques; NIELSEN: Chaconne, Op. 32; BRAHMS: Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21 No. 1; SCHUBERT: Variations on a Theme from “Rosamunde” (Impromptu in B flat, D. 935 No. 3) – Andrew Rangell, piano – Bridge 9331, 72:08 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Talk about variety! Get ready for five sets of variations that stretch the very idea of variations form and range over 125 years of musical history.
Talk about variety! and that despite the kind of high concept which might initially seem like something of a straightjacket. Even the cover of this CD has a retro feel that takes us back to a time when the recording medium was still young and programming had a free-wheeling logic that made its own kind of sense—but just. (Think of the Everest LP from the 50s that brought together the Australian John Anthill and the Argentine Alberto Ginastera; it’s still available, if you have a hankering.) Here, we have five sets of variations that stretch (without ever breaking) the very idea of variations form. They range over 125 years of musical history, from the time when the piano was just emerging as the dominant keyboard instrument to the early years of modernism, which would reinvent the piano as a percussion instrument.
That doesn’t happen, however, in Carl Nielsen’s Chaconne of 1916, which manages to be both a tribute to the tradition of Baroque counterpoint and a harmonically challenging, thoroughly modern masterpiece. It requires little pounding by the pianist and unfolds in strange but appealing melodic lines, mostly legato. If you’re familiar only with the symphonic Nielsen, here’s a work you need to know as well.
The biggest surprise, and treat, of all might just come in the form of Georges Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques (1868). In his day, Bizet was reputed to be one of the finest pianists in Europe, but he wrote little of significance for his instrument with the exception of this remarkable set of variations. Clearly ahead of his time, Bizet anticipates César Franck in his highly chromatic masterworks for piano of the 1880s. Bizet’s theme is an austere, strangely Lisztian affair that transmogrifies itself into a series of seven minor- and major-mode variations each, fraught with dramatic, almost melodramatic, overtones. A remarkable piece.
Then there’s Haydn’s Variations in F Minor, the composer’s most celebrated set of keyboard variations and a prime example of the double-variations form that he favored. (For an orchestral example, listen to the second movement of Symphony No. 103.) What better way to ground the program than starting with a familiar classic before going somewhat afield, as Rangell certainly does with Brahms, not the expected Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel but the far less familiar Variations on an Original Theme. It may not be top-drawer Brahms, but it’s a more personal statement, and not just because the theme is Brahms’s own. It has a quiet, introspective quality about it that is more patently Romantic (à la Brahms’s benefactor Robert Schumann) than Brahms’s big “public” statements such as the Handel and Paganini Variations. It’s surprising, then, to read in Andrew Rangell’s astute, well-written notes to this recording that the variations were penned while Brahms was “producing canons, fugues, and organ works, the fashioning of which had a steadying function for the composer, a return to the basics of his craft. And indeed the variations are a most workmanlike effort.” Workmanlike, yes, but also heartfelt and, as I say, personal—the variations wear Brahms’s learnedness very lightly.
Finally more variety: Schubert’s familiar Variations on a Theme from “Rosamunde” (aka Impromptu D. 935 No. 3). As befits their improvisatory nature, the variations are free-flowing, impetuous, off the cuff. So free-spirited are these variations, we tend to forget that’s what they are, at least until a pianist like Andrew Rangell reminds us of the fact.
I’m happy to be reminded and to have the benefit of Rangell’s assured pianism, as well as his canny programming. This really is a stimulating recital and well worth hearing. The fine recorded sound from Bridge is just the icing on Rangell’s appealing five-layer cake. Enjoy.