William Bolcom (b. 1938)
The Complete Rags
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. 2021, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, USA
HYPERION CDA68391/2 [2 CDs: 133]
The name William Bolcom initially caught my attention when I became a big fan of Scott Joplin in the 1970's. Having bought some of Joshua Rifkin's Joplin recordings, I came across an LP called Heliotrope Bouquet, with Bolcom as pianist. Sadly this record never made it onto CD. It included rags by Tom Turpin, Joseph Lamb, Joplin himself and a haunting piece by Bolcom called Graceful Ghost.
This pair of CDs represents Bolcom's total output of rags, the twenty-seven tracks reflecting a dedication to the ragtime idiom that has endured for more than fifty years - a long love-affair. Of course, deep-seated racial prejudice prevented an honest appreciation of Joplin's gift, but also, because this music was born in “sinful places” (brothels), it was somehow inconceivable that it could be beautiful or even sophisticated. I find in Joplin's music a tenderness and lyricism that never grow stale. That's enough about the beloved Joplin, before I move on to this outstanding pair of CDs.
I cannot speak too enthusiastically of Hamelin's playing. Immediately in track 1 his relish for this music is tangible in playing of terrific wit, verve and sheer uninhibited character, but there is also deep sensitivity in the more reflective numbers. Bolcom's expressive and imaginative range within the ragtime idiom is equally remarkable. We have the extrovert Eubie's Lucky Day, the gently whimsical Tabby Cat Walk, with its Haydnesque false endings, the alternately strict then languid Knockout “A Rag” (with rhythmic noises - quasi tap-dancing?), and the four-part Garden of Eden – successively jaunty, relaxed, hectic and lazy. Lost Lady Rag has a wistful quality. The nostalgic Graceful Ghost opens Disc 2, but its two companion pieces are skittish and dreamy respectively. Then there is the outrageously subversive Brass Knuckles, the final track of Disc Two. Occasionally throughout these Bolcom rags, a phrase affectionately recalls a piece by Joplin himself. Of course the invention is not always top-drawer but none of these pieces is less than engaging. It is stating the obvious to say that, in spite of Bolcom's inventiveness and range of moods, these pieces were never intended to be listened to en masse.
The booklet is as useful as one would expect from Hyperion, Bolcom's own notes being both informative and lively. The recording cannot be faulted, while the striking cover, a reproduction of
Two to the bar by Allen Jones, will not be to everyone's taste.
Eubie's Lucky Day (1969)
Tabby Cat Walk (1968)
Knockout: “A Rag” (2008)
Rag-Tango (1971, revised 1988)
The Garden of Eden (1969):
Old Adam; The Eternal Feminine; The Serpent's Kiss; Through Eden's Gates
California Porcupine Rag (1968)
The Gardenia (1970)
The Brooklyn Dodge (1972)
Three Ghost Rags (1970-71):
Graceful Ghost Rag; The Poltergeist; Dream Shadows
Raggin' Rudi (1974)
Epitaph For Louis Chauvin (1967)
Seabiscuits Rag (1967)
Estela: “Rag Latino” (2010)
Fields Of Flowers (1977)
Knight Hubert (1971)
Lost Lady Rag (1969)
Glad Rag (1967)
Last Rag (1968)
Brass Knuckles (1969) – collaboration with William Allbright