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Elite Syncopations
Ballet choregraphed by Kenneth MacMillan
Orchestra of the Royal Ballet/Philip Gammon (piano)
No recording dates or location supplied - 1976?
CRD 3329 [44:32]

Listening to this recording is like meeting an old friend after many years absence. Everything - warts and all - is warmly and affectionately familiar. More about the warts later - they are quite significant in the disc's presentation. No recording details are given except a copyright of 1976 which places this disc two years after the premiere at Covent Garden of Kenneth MacMillan's hugely and enduringly popular ballet based on ragtime music Elite Syncopations. The performers here are the same - in name at least - as at the October 7th 1974 premiere; pianist/musical director Philip Gammon and eleven other members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

1974 was very much the height of Ragtime rediscovery. December 1973 had seen the release of the worldwide hit film The Sting and suddenly everyone was playing piano rags and Scott Joplin's name was known far and wide. Apparently MacMillan had been planning a narrativeless ragtime ballet prior to the film's release but at the very least one imagines the popularity of the form coalesced the plan. Important to note too that this was not the first ragtime ballet - in August 1974 The London Festival Ballet [now English National Ballet] performed Grant Hossack's brilliant adaption for solo piano and full orchestra of Joplin's music under the title of The Prodigal Son. However, the humour and broad appeal of the Covent Garden version, the striking designs by Ian Spurling and probably the greater perceived stature of the dance company and choreographer have ensured that Elite Syncopations survives in the performing repertoire whereas Prodigal Son does not. Hossack's arrangements deserve reviving. Set as they were for a full orchestra they are a more interesting 'treatment' of the rags used, rather than being rather simple standard arrangements as here.

One of the many important details missing from the accompanying information with this disc is who was responsible for the arrangements used. They copy the formula of American groups such as The New England Ragtime Ensemble where a piano leads a 'small orchestra' of reduced strings wind, brass and rhythm section. No attempt is made in the liner to connect the rags used to the staging, which is another disappointment. In part because some of the tempi chosen - never too fast, as Joplin insisted - seem at odds with the original piano versions. Not just slow but rather heavy and plodding. Beautifully played for sure if occasionally verging on the prim, certainly when played alongside the New England performances let or the Marvin Hamlisch led OST for The Sting. Deliberately, I assume, MacMillan avoids all of the rags that were so iconic in the film but the absence of Joplin's great tango-inflected Solace and the work the composer intended for a ballet[!] The Rag Time Dance are significant omissions. A positive inclusion is one of Joplin's great rags in waltz-time Bethena but sadly this receives a very laboured performance. By chance I recently re-encountered Arthur Fielder's riotous recording of a handful of rags by the Boston Pops on DG. On one level I am sure the composer might be spinning in his grave but my goodness they are a riot - not for the purists, but versions to put a smile on your face.

Tagged onto the end of the disc are three additional rags in simple piano trio versions that were not used in the ballet. Again a little explanation is needed. For example were they considered but cut? With no context they seem like three rather plain versions used to pad out an LP that still does not quite reach the 45 minute mark.

The engineering is in the excellent hands of Bob Auger so apart from some minor analogue tape hiss this still sounds a finely engineered disc. All the instruments register clearly and effectively in a good neutral acoustic. Phillip Gammon's playing of the many featured piano solos is assured and apt if lacking the easy energy of Joshua Rifkin's ground breaking performances. Again I wonder if this is a case of the needs of the choreography outweighing any musical imperatives.

So to the 'warts'. These have been an issue with this disc ever since it was released on CD. The track listing on both the liner and printed on the CD is wrong from track 2 to track 7. CD track 1 is a combination of the first two titles listed. Thereafter the titles are out by one; so the music of track two is in fact The Cascades which is listed as three. Track three is in fact Hot House Rag which is listed as track four and so on. The piece which really is track seven is The Stop-time Rag and is not listed at all!

In many ways this recording has been superseded by more recent and adventurous performances - Morton Gunnar Larsen's Fingerbreaker disc on Decca for one. Having said all that, I did enjoy hearing this disc again - it reminded me why ragtime is so infectious - and it remains a valuable musical memento of one of Kenneth MacMillan's most popular works.

Nick Barnard

Track listing
(NB: tracks listed as they occur on the disc not as indicated on CD or liner)
Scott JOPLIN (1867/8 - 1917) / Scott HAYDEN (1882 - 1915)
1. Sunflower Slow Drag / Elite Syncopations [4:51]
Scott JOPLIN (1867/8 - 1917)
2. The Cascades [3:02]
Paul PRATT (1889-1948)
3. Hot House Rag [2:06]
James SCOTT (1885-1938)
4. Calliope Rag [2:32]
Joseph F. LAMB (1887-1960)
5. Ragtime Nightingale [2:39]
Scott JOPLIN (1867/8 - 1917) / Max MORATH (b.1926)
6. The Golden Hours [2:54]
Scott JOPLIN (1867/8 - 1917)
7. Stop-time Rag [3:00]
Joseph F. LAMB (1887-1960)
8. The Alaskan Rag [2:54]
Scott JOPLIN (1867/8 - 1917)
9. Bethena [4:44]
Donald ASHWATER (1929-1994)
10. Friday Night (1:49)
Robert HAMPTON (1890-1945)
11. Cataract Rag [3:01]
Scott JOPLIN (1867/8 - 1917)
Augustan Club [3:00]
Pleasant Moments [3:17]
Antoinette [2:26]



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