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Rags and Tangos
James SCOTT (1885-1938) Evergreen Rag (1915) [2:45]; Modesty Rag – A Classic (1920) [4:11]; Peace and Plenty Rag (1919) [2:56]; Troubador Rag (1919) [4:25]
Ernesto NAZARETH (1863-1934) Apanhei-te, Cavaquinho - Choro (1915) [2:36]; Vitorioso - Tango (c. 1912) [4:31]; Odeon – Tango brasileiro (1910) [2:53]; Nove de Julho – Tango argentine (1917) [4:47]; Labrinto - Tango (1917) [3:59]; Guerreiro - Tango (1917) [3:10]; Plangente – Tango brasileiro (com estilo de Habanera) (c.1925) [5:54]; Tango brasileiro (1926) [2:15]; Fon-Fon! - Tango (1930) [2:34]
Joseph F. LAMB (1877-1960) Ragtime Nightingale (1913) [4:16]; American Beauty Rag (1913) [3:50]; Bohemia Rag (1919) [4:09]; Topliner Rag (1916) [4:27]
Joshua Rifkin, piano
Recorded at St. George’s Church, Bristol, in August 1990 DDD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 2445 [64:29]


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In the first part of the 20th century music was undergoing radical shifts. In Europe there was an exploration of atonal writing in the form of serialism, expressionism and other avant-garde explorations. However in the Americas a quieter rhythmic revolution was happening. The United States gave birth to ragtime, leading on to jazz, while South America was inventing the tango. Throughout the lifetimes of both of these musical traditions, there have been periodic cross-pollinations which reinvigorated each art form. In this collection the goal was to display the early formation of these related styles through the piano works of three early masters.

Throughout this CD there is an easy flow between the selections regardless of their hemisphere of origin. It is quite interesting to note the similarity in tonal vocabulary these early tangos and rags. While the syncopation is different, being derived from different sources, there is an evident kinship. As many of the early keyboard tangos are not often performed, that could come as a bit of a surprise to some. Then again, many of the ragtime pieces are no longer standard repertoire, so it is likely that most will come to this music without much of an expectation.

Today it is mostly Scott Joplin that is remembered from the ragtime pantheon. He was not the only practitioner of the art form though, and James Scott is today widely recognized among musicologists as the 2nd master of the art form. Similarly Joseph Lamb left a collection of many of the most distinctive and complex rags ever written. In his music one can find the influence of Chopin as often as Joplin. Likewise Ernesto Nazareth was influenced by a love of Chopin’s music, and in the realm of tangos for piano he must be held in similar esteem to Joplin. His music spread to Europe, setting off the World War I craze for dancing the maxixe, and later gained further popularity through a multi-track recording by Britain’s Steve Race. That said, none of these names are likely to be widely recognized anymore. This exposes the obvious need for solid performances of these works if these pieces are not to be lost to history.

It appears that Joshua Rifkin is the type of musician who has the musical understanding needed to reacquaint the modern listener with ragtime and early tangos. He’s able to play each work with the energy and exuberance the genre demands. There is a great delicacy and expressiveness to this music that often is ignored, as the performer simply plays the notes in imitation of a mechanical player-piano. Here Rifkin refutes the suggestion that this music should have been relegated to such 2nd class status, and breathes life into the works that too often feel musty and old.

He’s also obviously able to play the most challenging works of the genre without difficulty. He does exactly what one should do with this type of music: he makes it sound both fun and easy. His left-hand stride technique is effortless, and the intricate rhythms of the tangos are very nicely interpreted. The most difficult of the pieces are probably the later works by Nazareth, and these are all very well performed.

The recording is generally well done, and the liner notes do a good job of giving the historical context. As Joplin’s works are so familiar, their exclusion is actually a boon. There is a tendency to want to always include the most familiar works of a genre in any compilation of this kind. By excluding them here the listener is given the opportunity to go far deeper into the pantheon of the music, gaining a depth of knowledge and exposure that really begins to flesh out the understanding. Additionally the exclusion of Joplin gives the listener a chance to lend a fresh ear to this type of music. Considering the music, that exploration is a lot of fun.

This is a good CD if one just wants some nice piano music to listen to, either closely or as background music. It also indulges an interest in pursuing a deeper knowledge of piano music from the early 20th century, or in the roots of jazz or Latin music. It should be noted that all of these works are of a very early nature, and played as they were intended: on a single piano. If someone wants a CD of dance music they should look elsewhere. If what you’re looking for is a collection of some very good piano performances of ragtime or early tangos, this is definitely where it can be found.

Patrick Gary




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