William Bolcom (b. 1938)
The Complete Rags
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. 2021, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA
HYPERION CDA68391/2 [2 CDs: 133]
The American composer William Bolcom is well established in his native United States but less known in Europe. He has, however, been well recorded, and you can find several reviews of his work on MWI. His largest work is a complete setting of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (review review). He is a pianist as well as a composer and has composed plentifully for the instrument, both solo and in songs which he has often performed with his wife, Joan Morris.
Like many others, I first became aware of ragtime and in particular of Scott Joplin through the recordings of Joshua Rifkin in the 1970s. I now learn, thanks to the sleevenotes of this recording, that it was William Bolcom who first introduced Rifkin to Joplin and who then went on to compose rags himself. The heyday of his contribution was in the late 1960s and 1970s but he continued to compose rags up until 2015. Many of them were written to honour particular musicians from the jazz world or to commemorate particular occasions. As most of the jazz musicians involved are little more than names to me, if that, I have to listen to Bolcom’s rags as pure music, though in his sleevenote Bolcom traces the history of each one.
Bolcom’s rags start being like Joplin’s, whom he obviously admires. So, his first, Glad Rag, sounds like pastiche Joplin, and so does another early one, Incinerator. However, he soon sets out on his own path. His rags are predominantly quiet rather than exuberant, with exam-les including Epithalamium, Epitaph for Louis Chauvin and Fields of Flowers, and he employs a wider range of pianistic devices than did Joplin, with an obvious though not obtrusive debt to the Lisztian tradition of piano writing. He also enjoys teasing the listener with rhythmic irregularities, as for example in Eubie’s Lucky Day, California Porcupine Rag or The Brooklyn Dodge, and with chromatic writing as in The Poltergeist – one of three Ghost Rags. In Tabby Cat Walk there are some sudden silences towards the end, which I at first thought was due to defects in the disc before realizing that they were deliberate. In Knockout the pianist is occasionally required to drum with his knuckles on the piano case, and the same device is used in The Serpent’s Kiss, one of a suite of four collectively titled The Garden of Eden.
Although some of the rags are jolly and exuberant, such as Old Adam (also from The Garden of Eden group) and Raggin’ Rudi, it is his quiet and wistful numbers, often with a touch of melancholy, which stay longest in the mind. These include The Gardenia, Knight Hubert, the rather Chopinesque Last Rag – not in fact the last one he wrote – and the actual last rag he wrote, Contentment. He ends with another early one, which he wrote in collaboraqtion with the composer William Albright. . This is Brass Knuckles, which is an extreme version of the bouncy type of rag, noisy with frequent crashes, which represents precisely the kind of piece Bolcom later avoided writing.
Marc-André Hamelin is of course celebrated not only for his astonishing technique – he has some of the fleetest fingers in the business – but also for his championing of lesser-known composers, which certainly includes Bolcom as far as we on this this side of the pond are concerned. He brings his usual precision, verve and sensitivity to these delightful pieces, which seem to me, as a collection, to be even finer than Joplin’s. indeed, I can’t wait to get hold of the sheet music and have a go at some of them myself. The recording is impeccable. Strongly recommended.
Previous review: Philip Borg-Wheeler
Eubie's Lucky Day (1969)
Tabby Cat Walk (1968)
Knockout: “A Rag” (2008)
Rag-Tango (1971, revised 1988)
The Garden of Eden (1969):
Old Adam; The Eternal Feminine; The Serpent's Kiss; Through Eden's Gates
California Porcupine Rag (1968)
The Gardenia (1970)
The Brooklyn Dodge (1972)
Three Ghost Rags (1970-71):
Graceful Ghost Rag; The Poltergeist; Dream Shadows
Raggin' Rudi (1974)
Epitaph For Louis Chauvin (1967)
Seabiscuits Rag (1967)
Estela: “Rag Latino” (2010)
Fields Of Flowers (1977)
Knight Hubert (1971)
Lost Lady Rag (1969)
Glad Rag (1967)
Last Rag (1968)
Brass Knuckles (1969) – collaboration with William Allbright
Published: October 17, 2022