Saturday, January 31, 2015

Joshua Rifkin – Piano Rags by Scott Joplin – Volume III

   One of most interesting questions linked to the history of jazz and popular music of turn of 19th and 20th centuries is how much ragtime influenced the rise of jazz and some kinds of popular music. Was it just one of many trends which passed away, or powerful idea of connecting European artistic tradition with folk music of Afro-Americans. To the 1970’s such a question was easy to answer. Ragtime was just a historic fact without clear potential for taking place in living culture. But after Joshua Rifkin started the revival of Scott Joplin’s ragtime, these attributes had rapidly changed. Ragtime became trendy musical miniature evoking old days of America intact by crisis, prohibition and social change, almost a symbol of American musical heritage.
   After great albums of ragtimes by Scott Joplin in 1970 and 1972, in 1974 Joshua Rifkin recorded Volume III of this cycle. Three days of recording session, September 9 to 11, 1974, took place in Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York. As it was on previous two volumes, album included eight pieces, four compositions on every side. In effect 24 Scott Joplin’s ragtimes in three collections cover 60 % of complete Joplin ragtime works. Meanwhile, in between Nonesuch records in 1973, Joshua Rifkin took part in work on Marvin Hamlish’s adaptation of Joplin’s music as the movie soundtrack The Sting. This was highest point of Joplin’s revival. He was played almost everywhere and thousands of pianists all over the world have taken The Entertainer as an encore and a half serious position in jazz or the partly popular position in classical repertoire.

Joshua Rifkin - Piano Rags by Scott Joplin - Volume III (1974)

   The program of third collection of Piano Rags by Scott Joplin consists of eight pieces covering 11 years of composer's activity. It starts with Original Rags, the first printed rag composition by Scott Joplin which was credited also for Chas. N. Daniels, although his involvement is doubtful. As Joshua Rifkin had stated, Daniels “acted as a sort of copy editor, modifying some details of Joplin’s notation and keyboard writing”. Daniels later became composer himself, selling his works under the name Neil Moret. The first ragtime by Scott Joplin can be seen as a moment of establishing the formal idea being later the base for constant changes. Four sections with repetitions with first section repeated between sections B and C show strong relations between Joplin’s ragtime form and various forms of 19th century march music, especially John Philip Sousa military and patriotic marches.
   Scott Joplin was not alone, there were more ragtime composers. In his elegant, perfectly constructed phrases artistic ambitions are visible. As a piano composer he was much more gifted in melodic and emotional possibilities than ragtime composers like his contemporary Joseph Lamb and later Artie Matthews. The closest one to specific Joplin’s style was James Scott, pianist of next generation who was intentionally imitating some of Joplin’s features. There are also various links with dance and popular music, later works show higher ambitions and progress of composer’s possibilities. By criteria of artistic means difference between first Joplin’s Original Rags (1899) and four years later Weeping Willow or next year The Cascades (1904) and The Chrysanthemum (An Afro-American Intermezzo) show how strong was impact of salon music of the era. Second side shows four ragtimes from Joplin’s best period, Sugar Cane (1908), The Nonpareil (1907), Country Club (1909) and Stoptime Rag (1910). Even if later there were published Complete Works of Scott Joplin recorded by Richard Zimmerman or Scott Joplin pieces pour clavecin performed by Elisabeth Chojnacka, these three Nonesuch albums remain model performance and repertoire choice.
   Joshua Rifkin is famous not only for his congenial interpretations of Scott Joplin’s music. He is one of most significant musicologists conducting research on music of Johann Sebastian Bach and interpreters of great cantor’s music. It’s hard to believe these are recordings of the same artist. First I’ve heard Rifkin’s Bach; I was convinced it’s just similarity of names. But there can be no mistake. Joshua Rifkin is a great example of scholarly supported artist. When he interprets Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” BWV 12 he uses his knowledge as foundation to his artistic expression. The same with Scott Joplin. We can admire the elegance of Rifkin’s interpretations but in this case we must admit he is just translating artistic means of Joplin’s time into our receptivity. This third album of Rifkin interpretations was perfect closing of three volume series. For its position in history and artistic excellence this album as well as two previous volumes deserve four stars.

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