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Scott JOPLIN (1868-1917)
Piano Rags - Volume 2

Ragtime Dance: A Stop-Time Two Step [3.05]; A Breeze from Alabama: March and Two Step [4.19]; The Chrysanthemum: An Afro-American Intermezzo [4.42]; Peacherine Rag [3.47]; The Cascades: A Rag [3.14]; Weeping Willow: A Rag Time Two Step [4.22]; Gladiolus Rag [4.26]; Eugenia [4.40]; The Crush Collision March [4.52]; Reflection Rag: Syncopated Musings [4.51]; Magnetic Rag [5.21]; Swipesy: Cake Walk [3.22]; Scott Joplin’s New Rag [4.03]; Rose leaf Rag-A Ragtime Two Step [4.04]; The Rosebud March [2.49]; Stoptime Rag [2.51]
Benjamin Loeb (piano)
rec. The Arts Centre, The Country Club Day School, King City, Ontario, Canada, 5-8 August 2005
NAXOS 8.559277 [64.49]

Readers of this website may well remember the effect that the rediscovery of Scott Joplin created in the early 1970s as a result of that wonderful film ‘The Sting’, especially with ‘The Entertainer’. It precipitated a series of new publications and of his complete works. The first pianist of note to tackle the music was Joshua Rifkin whose Nonesuch recordings dating from 1971 to 1974 are still available.

I remember, as a boy growing up in a small Staffordshire town, that the ‘rag and bone man’ would come around every week with his horse and cart. We would, amongst other things, give him a number of dirty old rags. These he took to be turned into a poor quality paper; this was the continuation of a tradition.  It was on this sort of paper that, many years before, Joplin’s rags had first been published between 1890 and 1910. They may have been inexpensive to buy but because of the nature of the reclaimed paper very few of the originals have survived. The logic ran: use the cheapest paper for the lowest quality music; music which was not only popular and therefore nasty but written by a black man. This is the kind of prejudice which Joplin and other ragtime composers had to contend with. Ultimately it led to his total breakdown and disheartenment. His death followed after the disappointing reception of his ragtime opera, complete in 1915, ‘Treemonisha’.

Ragtime is essentially a mixture of African rhythms derived from the black slave community and the popular music of Louis Gottschalk and Stephen Foster .By the 1920s it had developed into jazz and later to rock and roll and to pop music as we have come to know it.

Naxos is embarking upon a complete Joplin series in their ‘American Classics’ series. Volume 1, which for some reason passed me by, was given to Alexander Peskanov. Now they have turned to the American pianist and composer Benjamin Loeb. It’s also possible to hear Joplin play these pieces on piano rolls. Rifkin is often a great deal faster than Loeb, whereas Joplin sets a quite relaxed tempo, especially in the marches.

Let me pick out a few highlights from these sixteen tracks. I’m thinking especially of the extraordinary, almost Ivesian ‘The Crush Collision March’, the earliest piece here, dated 1896. With its cluster chords, dissonances and frantic harmonies it represents a train crash and is full of whistles and screams.

One does not immediately associate Joplin with marches but there are three recorded here. These include the Rosebud March, which apart from the fact that it is in duple time (6/8 actually) bears very little relation to the march as we know it! There is also a rag type Intermezzo, which with its curling, quite well-known tune, is less syncopated and excitable than other rags. The structure is typical of all of the music on this CD: a sort of necklace-form where one tune leads into another without any further reference to earlier music. Each set of 16 bars or whatever, is repeated so it fall into the pattern AABBCC, for instance.

It is not often that a pianist is asked to stamp his foot whilst playing but this is what happens in The Stoptime Rag. The foot keeps the basic beat while the hands play some snazzy rhythms around its basic pulse. Good fun.

Debussy understood ragtime as simply a syncopated melody. On listening to the beautifully named ‘Swipesey’ Cake Walk I wonder if he had heard it. The simple syncopations and tune remind me of ‘Golliwog’s Cake Walk’, or perhaps I’m imagining it. David Truslove, in his excellent notes, says about the piece that it was a collaboration “written jointly by a black colleague Arthur Marshall and completed by Joplin”. He remarks on its “zestful melodic lines”.

Possibly because he is American (born in Texas), it appears to me that Benjamin Loeb is an ideal exponent of this music. He seems to be authentic and has a slightly brittle tone, aided no doubt by the wonderfully clear, if sometimes dryish acoustic of the excellently named ‘Country Day School’. His rhythms are incisive and he has a knack of elegantly bringing out a melody against a firm left-hand beat.

All in all, a highly recommendable disc. It will be most interesting to see which pianists are entrusted to follow up in this fascinating project.

Gary Higginson

See also Review by Dan Morgan




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