, September 2007
It’s not often that Hollywood can take the credit for rediscovering music but George Roy Hill’s 1973 film The Sting certainly brought the works of Scott Joplin to a wider audience. But there is so much more to Joplin than the ubiquitous Entertainer – he wrote three operas, a ballet and two orchestral works – and one can only hope that Naxos will explore his works in their entirety as part of their enterprising American Classics series (see reviews of Volume 1 of his piano rags). A new recording of Treemonisha would be especially welcome.
Joplin referred to the syncopations that characterise ragtime as ‘weird and intoxicating’ and in the right hands this music is heady indeed. Perhaps one of the best exponents of Joplin’s oeuvre is Joshua Rifkin, whose disc The Entertainer (Nonesuch 7669 79449 2) has been a long-time favourite. Texas-born pianist Benjamin Loeb – associate conductor of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, teacher, accompanist and soloist – may be unfamiliar to most listeners but his foray into ‘ragged time’ ought to change that.
The earliest item on this recording is the Crush Collision March of 1896, a graphic, silent-film-style depiction of a train crash replete with whistle effects and colliding chords. It is a fun piece but it’s hardly vintage Joplin. The composer also went on to depict the waterfall in the Cascade Gardens at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis.
The score of the energetic Rag-Time Dance (1899) instructs the pianist to stamp as directed, filling in the silent beats. The pianist is also urged not to ‘raise the toe from the floor while stamping’. Loeb catches the slightly frenetic mood of this two-step with nicely articulated syncopations in the right hand and suitably rhythmic thumps when required.
Swipesy – Cake Walk is a collaborative effort with Arthur Marshall (1881-1968). It has a certain elegance and Loeb makes the most of its rather repetitive material.. No such reservations about the Peacherine Rag of 1901, with its ear-catching accompaniment in the left hand. Thankfully the Naxos recording is clear and not too closely miked, which means no brittleness in the treble and a pleasing weight in the bass. The Nonesuch sound is warmer and weightier, though less analytical.
A Breeze from Alabama dates from the same year as The Entertainer (1902), with which it has more than a passing resemblance. It was a relatively happy and productive time in Joplin’s life and there is a real fluency to this and The Weeping Willow of 1903, the latter of which adds a certain wistfulness to its list of charms. Loeb seems to be alive to the subtle changes of mood in music which, in lesser hands, is apt to sound rather unvaried.
The good times didn’t last. Joplin’s marriage failed in 1904 and his second wife died of pneumonia just 10 weeks after the ceremony. In spite of these personal tragedies he carried on writing. The Cascades and The Chrysanthemum date from this period. Neither shows much sign of inner sadness, though the latter seems a little more introspective than usual. Fortunately, elegance and invention aren’t in short supply and Loeb finds a lovely spring to the melody of The Chrysanthemum (1:02 onwards).
Eugenia and The Rosebud March (both 1905) are very different. Eugenia, which Loeb launches with disarming ease, has several scale-like passages before returning to its original melody. The start of The Rosebud March is just as mellifluous, quickly turning into one of the most infectious pieces on this disc. Loeb really finds the sparkle and humour in its catchy melodies. An absolute tonic.
The Rose Leaf and Gladiolus rags date from Joplin’s move to New York in 1907. The latter, buoyant as always, seems a little more subdued than usual, but Rose Leaf is altogether more sprightly, with brighter melodies in the right hand and lighter accompaniment in the left. Technically it is more complex, florid even, and shows Joplin very much in control of his material. Once again Loeb has the measure of its rhythms and has no difficulties with the more virtuoso writing.
Stoptime Rag (1910) is equally spirited, with its right-hand pyrotechnics and foot-stompin’ accompaniment, but Joplin’s problems with his opera Treemonisha and his deteriorating mental health blighted his last years. One would hardly know it from the New Rag of 1912, although it does have a hint of melancholy in its little repeated melody in the left hand. No such ambiguity with the Magnetic Rag of 1914, which Loeb treats as the darker-hued piece that it undoubtedly is. All the usual Joplin trademarks are there but the repeated phrases seem even more haunting than before. Astonishingly, Rifkin races through the New Rag in just over three minutes to Loeb’s four. He simply ignores Joplin’s dictum that ragtime must never be played too fast and pays the price in terms of detail and general articulation. A rare lapse in what is otherwise a sophisticated and satisfying collection.
Reflections (1917) is indeed a summing up, a taking stock. Treemonisha had been a disaster and Joplin was soon to succumb to the ravages of syphilis, but despite this the music has a lucidity and grace – not to mention some brilliant touches, especially the Gottschalk-style banjo figures – that Loeb captures to perfection.
All in all a winning compilation, sympathetically played by Benjamin Loeb.The Naxos engineers have done a pretty good job too, and the booklet notes are both informative and interesting. Compared with the Rifkin disc, which contains many of the items here, Loeb’s readings come across as delightfully fresh and spontaneous. In many ways his playing is even more revealing and characterful than Rifkin’s, and that’s praise indeed. Now, when can we expect Treemonisha?