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Elite Syncopations
Ballet by Kenneth MacMillan (1974)
Orchestra of the Royal Ballet/Philip Gammon (piano)
rec. venue and dates not given, originally released 1976
CRD 3329 [44.32]

It is an established part of American musical mythology that the attempts made by Scott Joplin to break into the realm of classical music were frustrated by racial prejudice, not only during his lifetime but for some fifty years thereafter. But it is interesting to contrast this with the fact that the music of his near-contemporary Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was so warmly welcomed in America during his visit there during the last years of his life, when the British composer told Havergal Brian that he was “overjoyed at the progress men of his race were making in cultural development.” In the last half-century or more the tables have been somewhat reversed, with Coleridge-Taylor’s music being more or less neglected apart from his Violin Concerto, which has established a position on the fringes of the repertory; we really need good modern recordings of his choral works A tale of old Japan and Meg Blaine, both successful during the early years of the twentieth century but comprehensively sidelined since (there are recordings of live performances of both available on the internet which whet the appetite).

Joplin on the other hand was taken up enthusiastically by American musicologists with pioneering recordings by Joshua Rifkin which preceded his move into “authentic” Bach performances, and even Joplin’s opera Treemonisha which he had attempted so valiantly to produce on stage towards the end of his life was received as a forgotten masterpiece – which it unfortunately most definitely is not. It is also sad to realise that Joplin’s attempts to promote performances of his piano rags in orchestral versions remained unfulfilled, when the versions by Philip Gammon here written for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet Elite syncopations would seem to have been the answer to his dreams.

This disc presents some of Joplin’s rags (oddly excluding his two most popular essays in the form the Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer) coupled with other ragtime scores by his contemporaries Paul Pratt, Joseph F Lamb, James Scott and Robert Hampton. We are also given as an appendix three extra rags by Joplin not used in the ballet, although the total length of the CD remains meagre by modern standards. The recording was originally issued on a LP in 1976, and made the transition to CD thirteen years later. Something went wrong in the track listings on that CD transfer, and it seems to be extraordinary that for this reissue an opportunity was not taken to correct the errors and to restore the listing from CRD’s own LP notes. Elite Syncopations itself is shown as track 2, but in fact is included in track 1; the following tracks 3-7 are in fact heard as tracks 2-6; and track 7 is not Max Morath’s The golden hours as listed but Scott Joplin’s own Stop-time Rag – which is indeed mentioned in Noel Goodwin’s booklet note (from 1976) but not listed on the table of contents. The timings given below attempt to rectify this.

One review I have read wasn't overly impressed either by some aspects of the performance, in particular complaining that the drummer was not “fully integrated” into the music. I am not quite sure what he is getting at here, since the re-orchestration of the piano pieces for the stage would clearly require the addition of such elements, and indeed the playing of the Covent Garden orchestra surely meets Joplin’s expressed wish for the music to be delivered in classical style. Philip Gammon himself plays the piano parts with proper sense of idiom as well as conducting the players. As I have noted, the CD is short measure and the incorrect track listing is annoying; but those who have an interest in the growing emergence of Joplin during the 1960s and 1970s as more than just an interesting historical figure will surely wish to have these performances. This disc is valuable, too, for letting us hear some of the ragtime music of Joplin’s contemporaries most of which remains almost totally unknown. We hear too some later exponents of the ragtime style, in the shape of by Donald Ashwander and Max Morath, both of whom would have been alive at the time of these recordings and the latter of whom is still with us (and made valuable recordings of ragtime seemingly as late as the 1990s).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Nick Barnard

Scott JOPLIN (1868-1917)
The Cascades [3.02]
Stop-time Rag [2.54]
Bethena—a Concert Waltz [4.44]
Augustan Club [3.00]
Pleasant Moments [3.17]
Antoinette [2.26]
JOPLIN and Scott HAYDEN (1882-1915)
Sunflower Slow Drag/Elite Syncopations [4.51]
Paul PRATT (1889-1948)
Hot House Rag [2.06]
James SCOTT (1885-1938)
Calliope Rag [2.32]
Joseph F LAMB (1887-1960)
Ragtime Nightingale [2.39]
The Alaskan Rag [3.00]
Max MORATH (b.1926)
The Golden Hour [2.54]
Donald ASHWANDER (1929-94)
Friday Night [1.49]
Robert HAMPTON (1890-1945)
Cataract Rag [3.01]



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