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The Early Ragtime
Tom TURPIN (1871/73-1922)
Harlem Rag (composed 1892, published 1897) [2:37]
Scott JOPLIN (1867/68-1917)
Maple Leaf Rag (1899) (2:37]
The Easy Winners (1901) [3:11]
Something Doing (1903) [3:14]
The Chrysanthemum (1904) [4:00]
James SCOTT (1885-1938)
Frog Legs Rag (1906) [2:46]
Heliotrope Bouquet (1907) [3:33]
Gladiolus Rag (1907) [3:14]
Paragon Rag (1909) [3:04]
Sunburst Rag (1909) [2:55]
Euphonic Sounds (1909) [2:59]
Bix BEIDERBECKE (1903-1931)
Flashes (1931) [2:15]
In A Mist (1928) [4:17]
Candlelights (1930) [3:54]
In The Dark (1931) [2:24]
Marco Fumo (piano)
rec. 2009, OnClassical Studio, Pove del Grappa, Italy
24/88.2 download only
no artwork or booklet

The digital revolution continues apace; while the sales of physical CDs are in decline – steep or slow, depending who you believe - download sites and streaming services are on the rise. I much prefer a shiny disc, but looking back I see that downloads now form the bulk of my reviews for MusicWeb International. Nearly all are available in a physical form though, yet more and more labels are opting for downloads only. OnClassical, formed in 2003, are a case in point; their catalogue is small and their product is sold via eclassical, e-Onkyo and HDtracks. Apart from a compilation disc issued a few years ago I can’t find OnClassical CDs anywhere.

The label’s website claims all their albums come with high-res artwork – no mention of booklets - but the downloads offer no documentation of any kind. This is inexcusable, and I can’t believe the cost of producing decent liner-notes adds much to this or any other company’s overheads. Want to be taken seriously in this very competitive business? Then offer a comprehensive, well-priced package. Anything else looks too much like a rip-off. Universal’s overpriced downloads come to mind; at least Linn have seen the light and don’t carry them on their site any more.

As a busy reviewer I certainly don’t want to waste time ferreting out essential information before I can even begin to listen. As it is all I could discover about the Italian pianist Marco Fumo is that he’s featured on two Dynamic discs playing similar repertoire to that offered here. The bio on OnClassical’s website claims, somewhat glibly, that Fumo is ‘one of the best interpreters of Afro-American piano music’; there’s little else of value there. Now that’s where a booklet would come in handy; an essay explaining why Fumo has chosen to specialise in this repertoire, perhaps, plus notes on the works and composers featured. The site also says Fumo plays a 1952 Blüthner grand; again, it would be interesting to know why he chose that instrument.

On to the music. Tom Turpin’s Harlem Rag, composed in 1892, was the first to be published by an African-American composer. Fumo gives an unfussy, rhythmically engaging performance of the piece; as for the Blüthner it hardly sounds like a grand, such is its clean, upfront character. Perhaps that’s the answer to my earlier question, for it certainly allows the piece to ‘open up’ in the most delightful way. Incidentally, Turpin – a man of many accomplishments at a time when African-Americans faced enormous adversity – was a giant who had to play standing up. That meant the piano had to be mounted on blocks. What an extraordinary sight that must have been.

The 1972 film The Sting brought Scott Joplin to the attention of many, myself included. I daresay amateur pianists struggled to master the movie’s signature piece, The Entertainer, with varying degrees of success. Fumo’s account of the Maple Leaf Rag is very deft indeed, even if it seems a little rushed at times. As before the clarity of both his playing and that of his well-chosen piano allows that all-important interaction of left and right hands to come through unhindered. The ragtime two-step Easy Winners is slightly less well focused, but its core tune is always nicely articulated.

I was impressed by the recording, which captures the piano’s timbres very well indeed; also, there’s no jangle to the treble and the bass is light but firm. In Something Doing there’s an occasional blurring of inner voices, but Fumo does a creditable job of it nonetheless. Ditto Chrysanthemum, subtitled ‘An Afro-American Intermezzo’, which Fumo whips through in four minutes. Timings seldom tell the whole story, but that’s pretty quick compared with Benjamin Loeb’s 4:42 (review). That Naxos release, artfully programmed and superbly played, is one of the finest Joplin discs in the catalogue.

The slow drag of Heliotrope Bouquet sounds a little dogged for my tastes, and Fumo races through Gladiolus in 3:14, as opposed to Loeb’s more leisurely and revealing 4:26. Even though the Italian is somewhat breathless here – and elsewhere - one can’t help but admire his dexterity and informed enthusiasm. That said, I’d have preferred a more varied programme that didn’t flash past quite so quickly. That sense of haste – almost indecent at times - is underlined by the minimal pauses between pieces; indeed, it’s almost non-existent between tracks 7 and 8. Clearly OnClassical need to address their technical presentation as well as their lack of supporting texts.

It’s good to have two works by James Sylvester Scott, another key figure in the history of ragtime. Frog Legs and Sunburst Rag have terrific sprint and sparkle – the latter is a real toe-tapper – but I do wish Fumo would slow down a little. Still, he stays this side of garbled – just – and despite my carps and cavils I found it easy to listen through to the end. Perhaps more Scott, and some Joseph Lamb (1887-1960), would have added much-needed garnish to this dish.

Given this album’s emphasis on the word ‘early’ one might wonder why the jazz cornettist, pianist and composer Bix Beiderbecke is featured here; after all he was born a decade after ragtime’s launched at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. In any event the pieces included – all solo piano originals, apart from In The Mist, which began life as a song – are pleasing enough. The ragtime heritage is easily discernible throughout, although there’s a freer, more flowing style in evidence now. There’s also a strong sense of the composer’s thoughts being formed and fashioned at the keyboard, which makes for a most compelling listen. Fumo is adept at this jazzier idiom, alternating between restrained virtuosity and wistful charm.

Despite my reservations I enjoyed this collection a great deal. The playing is assured, the recording is excellent and the Beiderbecke pieces actually work rather well in this context. At $12.69 from eclassical The Early Ragtime is tolerable value for a mere 46 minutes of music. Not so at HDtracks, where it’s priced at $17.98, which is much too expensive for what’s on offer. Eclassical’s per-second charging really comes into its own with shorter albums; rip-off vendors please note.

Short measure, but well worth your time; the lack of documentation is a drawback.

Dan Morgan