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
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
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
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.