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Scott JOPLIN (1868-1917)
Rags and Waltzes
Maple Leaf Rag (1899)1 [3:05]
The Entertainer (1902)1 [5:23]
The Easy Winners (1901)1 [4:08]
Gladiolus Rag (1907) 1 [4:31]
Pine Apple Rag (1908)1 [3:25]
Bethena (A Concert Waltz) (1905)2 [4:37]
The Favorite (1904)2 [3:03]
Stoptime Rag (1910) 2 [2:56]
Heliotrope Bouquet (1907)1 [5:54]
Paragon Rag (1909)1 [3:49]
Solace (Mexican Serenade) (1909) 1 [7:04]
Magnetic Rag (1914)1 [5:00]
A Breeze from Alabama (1902)2 [3:30]
Pleasant Moments (Ragtime Waltz) (1909)2 [2:43]
Wall Street Rag (1908)2 [3:06]
Joshua Rifkin (piano)1
Ralph Grierson (piano)2
The Southland Stingers/George Sponhaltz

rec. 1The ‘Old Met’ Church, Philadelphia, USA, 30 November, 1 December 1979, 2Studio A, Capitol Records, Hollywood, CA, 30 January, 4 February 1974. ADD
EMI CLASSICS AMERICAN CLASSICS 2344772 [62:48]

 

Experience Classicsonline


My first, rather unpleasant, surprise was that it had been so long since Joshua Rifkin recorded these performances. It was almost thirty years ago, following the revival of interest in
Joplin’s music, after its use in the film The Sting.  Since then, interest in Joplin has become less intense, though others have taken up the baton, and Rifkin has moved on to directing performances of Bach. At least that gives us the chance for a more mature consideration of the music’s value, which remains considerable. 

The second, less unpleasant, surprise was how ‘straight’ Rifkin performs these pieces.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, since he is a musicologist who likes to get things right. For example, the vexed question of how many voices there should be to a part in Bach’s cantatas. If you want to get the feel of Rifkin’s belief in one voice per part in Bach, try either of his two Double Decca sets – Cantatas 147, 80, 8, 140, 51 and 78 on 455 706 2 or nos. 106, 131, 99, 56, 82 and 158 on 458 0872. But quite apart from Bach, Rifkin would also have known that Joplin disliked performances which distorted his music with too fast a tempo or too much swung rhythm. 

The Naxos recordings of Joplin are now well under way.  Patrick Gary described Volume 1 (Alexander Peskanov on 8.559114 – see review) as a good place to start exploring Joplin. Dan Morgan thought Benjamin Loeb’s playing on Volume 2 (8.559277) “delightfully fresh and spontaneous. In many ways his playing is even more revealing and characterful than Rifkin’s, and that’s praise indeed.”  (see full review).  With a gap of three years between these two issues, this looks like being one of those protracted series. The reappearance of the EMI recordings now is a timely reminder of the attractions of music which belies the trials and tribulations which its composer suffered during his short but far from sweet lifetime.  In fact, the contents of this CD have been available from EMI’s US associate, Angel Records – iTunes have both versions. Don’t make the mistake of downloading both under the impression that they’re different recordings.  The new reissue comes with a much more attractive cover picture.  The notes are very brief but informative. 

EMI begin their programme with the two best-known pieces, Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, both also included on Volume 1 of the Naxos series.  Peskanov’s timing for Maple Leaf looks very similar to Rifkin’s, but that’s because he reprises the opening section – he’s actually faster – try the almost breakneck opening of the track on eMusic or classicsonline.  Rifkin’s Nonesuch recording of Maple Leaf is, if anything, a trifle slower than his EMI version.  I can’t now remember which version Rifkin recorded first – Nonesuch give a date of 1987, which is rather too recent.  The Nonesuch recording on 7559-79449-2 seems to be out of stock from UK suppliers, so I can only guess that this is the current number of the version to which I’m referring: check that it has 17 tracks, beginning with Maple Leaf Rag and ending with Magnetic Rag, and runs for 71:18. 

Peskanov’s version of The Entertainer is considerably faster (4:42 against Rifkin’s 5:23), which suggests that he has been rather less heedful of Joplin’s insistence “It is never right to play ‘Ragtime’ fast”, though PG speaks of the respect and care with which he plays and declares the result a fine performance.  I listened to this track from the Naxos CD and, while I agree that the performance makes sense within its own context, I do prefer Rifkin’s more restrained account.  Whereas Peskanov starts a little too fast and has to slow down, Rifkin avoids rubato by hitting the right tempo from the start. 

When I first put the EMI CD on, I thought that Rifkin needed to speed up a tad; now the boot is on the other foot and I’d like Peskanov to slow down a little.  The same seems to be true for the other items common to both programmes.  On his Nonesuch recording, Rifkin himself strikes a tempo midway between that on EMI and the Peskanov at 4:58. Surprisingly, this performance sounds not one iota faster than his EMI version, whatever the stopwatch may say about the matter. 

Everything that Rifkin contributes to this CD, nine of the 15 tracks, is of the same high quality and the recording – close but not too close – belies its age and its ADD status.  I wish that EMI had given us more, but they have chosen to interpolate six items performed in arrangements by George Sponhaltz which, it is claimed, ‘give back to the music something of the air of the marching band where its origins lie.’  I think that Joplin would have made such arrangements himself if he’d thought them appropriate – I’m not sure that I do.  What he would have made of the arrangements for mandolins on Naxos’s Spaghetti Rag (8.557999) I’m not at all certain. 

Nevertheless, the arrangements on the EMI disc are mostly fairly innocuous and they do break up what would otherwise be long stretches of very similar music on the same instrument.  For most people, they may well add to the attraction of the CD and the performances don’t do any serious injustice to the music.  Perhaps Bethena (track 6), written after the death of Joplin’s wife and usually thought to reflect some of the tragedy of that event, is given with too great a swing. Rifkin takes a more appropriate 5:16 on his Nonesuch version. 

The Southland Stingers are well recorded, though in a noticeably different acoustic from the solo piano items, which makes it awkward to have to adjust three times in the course of the programme.  The transition from track 12 (piano) to 13 (arrangement) comes as a real jolt.  Why not simply divide the programme in two? 

I can’t offer separate accolades for the two sets of contributions; the ‘thumbs-up’ award refers solely to the Rifkin tracks. 

If you want a whole 71-minute programme of Joshua Rifkin playing Joplin, you’ll have to go for the 1997 reissue of his Nonesuch performances (7559-79449-2).  It costs just a little more than this EMI reissue.  Those pieces common to both CDs receive slightly different interpretations, but you’d hardly notice: Pine Apple Rag, for example, comes out just one second faster on Nonesuch and Paragon Rag is 4 seconds shorter. 

The EMI CD is valuable but could have been much more so.  Rifkin’s contributions will probably make you want to go for the Noneusch CD. There are so many pieces on that recording which are not duplicated on the EMI – for example, the essential Elite Syncopations – that they’re both worth having.

Brian Wilson


 


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