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Scott JOPLIN (1868-1917)
Ragtimes, Marches, Waltzes and Other Pieces
Alessandro Simonetto (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Saletta acustica 'Eric James', Pove del Grappa, Italy
Reviewed as a 24/88.2 download, courtesy of OnClassical
No pdf booklet included
ONCLASSICAL OC19122B [4 CDs: 3hrs 49mins] 

OnClassical are a small Italian label founded in 2003 by Alessandro Simonetto, who’s also the pianist in this set. Already some of their catalogue has been licensed to rivals Naxos and Brilliant Classics, which is pretty impressive for such a niche player. Then again, OnClassical focus on new talent, giving their artists much-needed exposure in a highly competitive market. My only encounter with the company to date has been The Early Ragtime, featuring the pianist Marco Fumo in works by Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin, James Scott and Bix Beiderbecke (review). Indeed, the good memories of that collection spurred me to request a download of this Joplin survey.

Experience shows this music can be presented in a myriad of ways - and on a wide variety of pianos - some approaches more successful than others. A while back I sampled a Joplin disc by an antipodean artist - no names, no pack drill - and was frankly appalled by his brash, rather cavalier treatment of these scores. Fortunately, that’s the exception, not the rule, with fine recordings from the likes of Dick Hyman, Joshua Rifkin, Alexander Peskanov and Benjamin Loeb , the latter two recordings part of what I earnestly hope will be a complete series from Naxos. Hyman’s classic cycle doesn’t appear to be available at the moment, so I’ve chosen the American composer-pianist William Albright’s 3-CD Nimbus one - recorded over four days in December 1989 - as my comparative version here (review). On the evidence of this traversal, which I’ve only just got to know, Albright, who died in 1998, at the age of 53, is a natural in this repertoire. Indeed, he’s raised the bar for all challengers, including compatriot William Appling, box I hope to review at some point (CD Baby).

Enter Alessandro Simonetto, who describes himself as ‘a versatile musician and music producer’. A self-taught pianist, he began composing from an early age. Later, he concentrated on jazz compositions and developed a keen interest in silent-film scores. After years as OnClassical’s sole producer/engineer, Simonetto resumed playing and recording himself on the piano and harpsichord. (His 2010 performance of Pieter Bustijn’s IX Suites pour le Clavessin (1712) was a MusicWeb Recording of the Month.) And, given his passion for jazz, it’s no surprise Simonetto’s finally recorded Joplin’s solo-piano pieces. Intriguingly, the instrument used is a Steinway D-274, personally chosen by the great Italian pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, in 1968. (Albright uses a Bösendorfer Grand.) As with the Fumo download, no pdf booklet is included with this one, although some basic notes are provided on the album’s web page.

Since the music is presented in chronological order - more or less - CD1 opens with The Crush Collision March, composed in 1896. First impressions? Simonetto has a deft and forthright playing style, the sound bright and quite detailed. There’s an ease and affection here that’s attractive, but even at this early stage I was impatient for a more probing approach, which, in turn, would reveal more of the composer’s craft. I can’t fault his light touch and fine articulation, very evident in the rollicking Original Rag. Indeed, his love for silent-film music really shines through there. (I look forward to reviewing Simonetto’s album of Laurel & Hardy scores by Leroy Shield.) One of the better things on this opening disc is the wistful Harmony Club Waltz, where the Italian finds an apt lilt and flourish that I find most beguiling. (Goodness, what an assured little number this is, for an early opus.) Also, he catches the witty ‘oompah’ sounds embedded in the delicious Celebration March.

A promising start, but one only has to hear Albright’s performances - in particular his Harmony Club Waltz, brimming with imagination and character - to realise what’s missing from the OnClassical collection. Moreover, the Nimbus engineers have come up with a marvellous ‘hear-through’ sound that opens a wide, clear window on the music’s often complex and subtle inner workings. Simonetto’s comparative lack of depth - both musical and technical - is probably why I struggled to engage with the rest of his introductory disc. To be fair, his chronological method doesn’t really help in this regard. A musicologist may prefer it done this way, but flexible programming, as adopted by Albright, promotes a sense of variety and heightens interest; that’s especially important for those who like to listen for extended periods of time (as I do). In purely musical terms, though, Simonetto’s too swift for my liking. For instance, his Maple Leaf Rag clocks in at 2:16, The Entertainer at 3:05, while Albright takes 3:07 and 4:06 respectively. Not a hanging offence, of course, but inordinate haste flattens contours and blurs essential interplay. And so it is with Elite Syncopations; a full minute faster than his rival’s, it’s really quite difficult to hear those evocative -banjo-like passages. Albright’s adept at these delightful and telling touches - his inventively inflected rhythms are a treat, too - and that’s another reason why his Joplin feels so complete.

CD2, which covers the period 1903 to 1907, has its fleeting pleasures; among them is a spirited take on The Favorite (actually composed in 1899), and a crisp Palm Leaf Rag. Both play to Simonetto’s penchant for clarity and rhythmic verve. Conversely, the disc opener, Weeping Willow, goes at quite a lick, which may account for some untidy patches. Then again, The Chrysanthemum, more sensibly paced, is similarly afflicted. Also, I find Simonetto’s’s propensity for attention-seeking flourishes - in The Sycamore, for instance - mildly irritating. Such devices are fine for cutting through the hubbub of a packed saloon, or as a high-spirited concert encore, but they feel out of place here.

Staying with disc two, the Italian earns some much-needed Brownie points with a pleasing Antoinette, an infectious Kismet Rag, and a sprightly rendition of The Nonpareil. These are better calibrated readings too, as are those of the lively, toe-tapping Gladiolus Rag and a lovely Rose Leaf Rag. These would be even more welcome if the recordings themselves - set down over several months - weren’t so variable. In fact, there are times when the sound comes uncomfortably comes close to a ‘jangle’. Admittedly, the latter’s a rare occurrence, but I really noticed it when switching to and from the Nimbus set. The warmer, more flattering presentation of Albright’s Ragtime Dance and The Nonpareil are proof, if it were needed, that a good recording make the difference between merely enjoying a a given performance and actually becoming immersed in it. Agreed, the Nimbus sound isn’t perfect - it has an overweening bass-line in a few places - but otherwise it’s warm, detailed and very spacious. (The recording was made in the congenial acoustic of Wright Music Hall, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro.)

So how does Simonetto - as both pianist and tech guy - fare on CD3? He starts well, with a colourful, sun-dappled account of the Joplin/Chauvin Heliotrope Bouquet; this seems to offer a fuller, more tactile sound that comes close to the elusive ‘hear-through’ presentation I’ve mentioned before. Then we’re back to swings and roundabouts, with a rather bright Lily Queen and a delightful rendition of The School for Ragtime. The latter’s a little gem, and most beautifully framed. Oh, if only the musical rewards were more consistent, this would be a far more competitive survey. As if to underline my point, Simonetto disappoints with a surprisingly garish Pine Apple Rag and a heavy-handed Wall Street Rag. Here, and in Solace, Albright proves the more astute interpreter, for, apart from his other talents, he’s a canny judge of mood and manner. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is what separates these two rivals. Simonetto’s Solace, shorn of all shape and gentle sentiment, is an object lesson in how this music shouldn’t go, his Pleasant Moments and Magnetic Rag perfect examples of how it should. Happily, that and the ‘bonus track’ on CD4 - a solo-piano arrangement of A Real Slow Drag from Treemonisha - ensures this review doesn’t end on a bum note.

Good in parts, Simonetto’s Joplin is just too uneven to recommend outright; for steadiness and a full exploration of the composer’s craft, look no further than the Albright set.

Dan Morgan

Contents

CD1
The Crush Collision March (1896) [4:33]
Original Rag (1899) [3:40]
Harmony Club Waltz (1896) [5:58]
Combination March (1896) [3:17]
Maple Leaf Rag (1899) [2:16]
Sunflower Slow Drag (with Scott Hayden) (1899/1901) [4:12]
The Augustan Club Waltz (1900-1901) [5:13]
Swipesy Cakewalk (with Arthur Marshall) (1900) [2:51]
Peacherine Rag (1901) [3:24]
The Easy Winners (1901) [4:00]
Cleopha (1902) [2:40]
The Strenuous Life (1902) [3:45]
A Breeze from Alabama (1902) [4:10]
Elite Syncopations (1902) [3:07]
The Ente rtainer (1902) [3:05]
March Majestic (1902) [3:50]
Felicity Rag (Hayden) (1903/1911) [4:54]
Something Doing (Hayden) (1903) [3:58]

CD2
Weeping Willow (1903) [2:58]
Palm Leaf Rag (1903) [4:10]
The Sycamore (1904) [2:44]
The Chrysanthemum (1904) [4:32]
The Ragtime Dance (1906) [3:29]
The Favorite (1904) [3:15]
The Cascades (1904) [3:32]
Bethena Concert Waltz (1905) [6:52]
Leola (1905) [4:29]
Binks' Waltz (1905) [6:01]
Rosebud (1905) [2:30]
Eugenia (1906) [5:10]
Antoinette (1906) [4:25]
Kismet Rag (Hayden) (1903-1904) [3:01]
The Nonpareil (1907) [4:09]
Searchlight Rag (1907) [4:20]
Gladiolus Rag (1907) [3:15]
Rose Leaf Rag (1907) [6:25]

CD3
Heliotrope Bouquet (with Louis Chauvin) (1907) [4:34]
Lily Queen (Marshall) (1907) [3:14]
School of Ragtime (1908) [2:28]
Reflection Rag (Syncopated Musings) (1908, pub. 1917) [4:14]
Fig Leaf Rag (1908) [5:20]
Sugar Cane (1908) [3:07]
Sensation (Joseph F. Lamb, arr. Joplin) (1908) [5:16]
Pine Apple Rag (1908)[3:45]
Wall Street Rag (1909) [4:42]
Country Club (1909) [3:26]
Solace (1909) [6:43]
Euphonic Sounds (1909) [3:09]
Pleasant Moments (1909) [4:23]
Paragon Rag [3:14]
Stoptime Rag (1910) [2:38]
Scott Joplin's New Rag (1912) [4:10]
Silver Swan Rag (1914) [3:34]
Magnetic Rag (1914) [5:09]

CD4
Treemonisha: A Real Slow Drag (arr. for solo piano) (1914) [5:41]  



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