Classical CD Reviews

“A Folk Song Runs Through It” = JANACEK: In the Mist; BARTOK: Improviasations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; Piano Sonata; Romanian Dances; KODALY: Seven Pieces – Amdrew Rangell, p. – Steinway & Sons

Ethnic modernism provides the unity to Andew Rangell’s latest album, an exploration of Slavic folk motifs through three eminently virtuoso composers of the Twentieth Century.

Published on August 10, 2013

A Folk Song Runs Through It” = JANACEK: In the Mist; BARTOK: Improviasations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20; Piano Sonata; Romanian Dances; KODALY: Seven Pieces for Piano, Op. 11 – Andrew Rangell, p. – Steinway & Sons 30018, 66:37 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

For his twenty-sixth recorded album (rec. May 2012), Andrew Rangell explores the element of folk music as it defines or influences three composers whose own investigations into ethno-musicology transformed and enriched their own creative directions. Kodaly, Janacek, and Bartok sought out “instrumental melodies of peasant origin – a large and unplumbed reservoir of ancient, indigenous music.” While Kodaly and Bartok collected, notated, and catalogued Hungarian and Magyar folk music, Janacek explored Moravian musical impulses to ignite his own Slovakian style and infuse it with animated rhythmic and harmonic life. Each composer proves himself “a child of the soil,” to use Bartok’s epithet. With their own musical syntax, each composer fused a mainstream tradition – born of Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, R. Strauss, and Ravel – to the ethnic impulses provided by his native milieu.

Rangell opens with Janacek’s 1912 In the Mist, a four-movement suite whose music consistently is set in five or six flats, built on fragments that reveal symmetrical construction. The general tempo for each piece remains slow or moderate, and the often choppy phrases might seem “impressionistic” or impulsively romantic to some tastes. But Janacek’s angular sense of beauty intrudes as well, with sudden shifts of phrase and modal harmony, often reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Three Pieces, Op. 11. The No. 2 Molto adagio erupts suddenly into a truculent toccata. The first and third pieces, Andante and Andantino, respectively, convey a degree of intimacy, even a religious or “chorale” element. No. 3 also breaks out into a rough peasant, stomping dance. The Presto begins with unruly harmony and brief chunks of melody that might be construed as late Scriabin. The textures shift rather brilliantly, with runs appearing from various corners or “mists” of the mind, as it were. The jarring declamations continue to the finale, harsh chords against rivulets of sound that end in a semi-parlando judgment.

Bartok’s 1920 collection of Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs comprise eight connected tableaux that both flow directly from each other and yet exhibit dynamic flux. That Debussy’s Etudes and the Bach Goldberg Variations influenced this music seems fairly obvious. Each tune presents its own set of three or four variations, while the intervals and their shifts allow for that element of ‘improvisation’ that the performer can claim as his own. Having first heard this music by Charles Rosen, I could well appreciate Rangell’s equally chaste application of dynamics and chiseled percussive effects in the context of disruptive harmonic progressions. One of the most impish of the set, marked Allegretto scherzando, suddenly breaks into a dance that the Allegro molto extends in askew counterpoint.  Like Bach, Bartok saves the last song for the most ‘learned’ treatment, a bawdy song that will evoke a canon at the tritone.

Bartok’s 1915 Six Romanian Folk Dances derive from fiddle tunes Bartok collected in 1909 from various Transylvania districts. Bartok transcribed the piano suite for the orchestra in 1917. The passing parade of ethnic dances moves swiftly and surely, ranging from a Stick Dance to a Sash Dance to a Romanian Polka and a Fast Dance. Cast in binary form, these kaleidoscopic bits of national color find an ardent performer in Rangell, who executes them with suavely potent elan.

Zoltan Kodaly’s Seven Pieces (1917-1918) used to be common vehicles for pianist Andor Foldes. Kodaly’s affection for Debussy prevails in these pieces, especially the Debussy of the Preludes; but musical detectives will find allusions to Liszt and direct quotes from Hungarian folk tunes. The heart of the suite, No. 4, is marked Epitaph: Rubato, which Rangell himself calls “a central dirge-like song.” The piece begins and ends with rotating riffs and liquid chords that bear resemblance to the Liszt Funerailles. The chordal progressions and sweeping gestures absorb elements from both Debussy and Mussorgsky. The last three of the set exploit a more “open” sound, incorporating declamatory plain-chant and lively ornamentation, typical of both Debussy and Transylvanian folk syntax. The pieces, like the Szekely-Tune, can challenge the pianist’s technique in the Liszt manner, while the harmonic language surpasses that composer’s “gypsy” influence with a more authentic and primitive harshness.

After the debut of The Miraculous Mandarin ballet in 1919, Bartok took an experimental attitude—like Stravinsky, Berg, and Schoenberg—to his music, utilizing punishing percussive element and harmonic discords that permeate his First Piano Concerto and the 1926 Piano Sonata. Like his 1911 Allegro barbaro, the opening of the Piano Sonata exploits Bulgarian percussive rhythm; some claim it was Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments that provided a catalyst for Bartok’s keyboard style at this time. Rangell plays in a direct unsentimental style, sure to chisel the five distinct motives of the opening Allegro moderato into sonata-allegro form. The music speeds up to a shattering, irresistible coda. The Sostenuto e pesant middle movement obsessively chants a single pitch, a keening dirge that relies on short pinched intervals. Juxtaposing a malignant chromaticism against a four-note diatonic tune, Bartok creates a nervous clash of characters, if not cultures, which evolves into a crescendo pedal-tone that ads to the emotional oppression. A fervently festive Magyar tune opens the last movement, combining rondo and variation forms, ornamental and even suggesting bird calls in two of the variants.  Rangell plays the jagged compulsive movement with buoyant piercing energy, the last page perhaps based on “Good King Wenceslas” but here explosive and “precipitous,” to use Rangell’s own apt epithet. The cover art, Chagall’s I and the Village (1911) proves absolutely right for this clangorous but eminently “native” recital.

—Gary Lemco




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