David Smith
Presto Classical
June 2022

Today’s Recording of the Week—the complete rags of octogenarian pianist-composer William Bolcom, clocking in at a little over two hours—might sound intimidatingly niche, perhaps of interest only to devotees of this particular genre. Nothing could be further from the truth; Bolcom’s twenty-six rags run a gamut from exuberance to introspection, from humour to expressions of deep pain and grief. And who better than Marc-André Hamelin to perform them? Hamelin has ample form for this kind of music, as his sparkling accounts of Clément Doucet’s wry (yet formidably demanding) Chopin and Wagner paraphrases Chopinata and Isoldina attest.

Some readers may, however, be puzzled. What is a contemporary composer doing writing ragtime? Didn’t that genre fizzle out a century ago, once Scott Joplin, James Scott and Joseph Lamb had held the fort long enough for their successors to mould it into jazz? Not so. After several decades in the wilderness, the ragtime genre underwent a huge revival in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, spearheaded among others by Bolcom himself.

His sleeve-notes indicate the oblivion into which ragtime had fallen, likely due in no small part to racist stereotyping of it as insufficiently ‘serious’ and ‘classical’ despite its creators’ well-documented aspirations to the contrary; Bolcom makes the astonishing observation that ‘few people in the 1967 musical world knew the name Scott Joplin’. The notes also provide a wonderful window into the group of friends who rediscovered and revitalised it. Dedicating pieces to one another in a way reminiscent of England’s Tudor keyboard school, Bolcom and his contemporaries took evident joy in ‘picking up a dropped thread’ of a uniquely American idiom and developing it together.

This friendship network gave rise to several of the pieces performed here: the lively opener Eubie’s Luckey Day, dedicated to Eubie Blake (1887-1983) and Luckey Roberts (1887-1968), from whom Bolcom learned much first-hand about the original ragtime idiom; Raggin’ Rudi, for ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh (co-author with Harriet Janis of They All Played Ragtime, a magisterial account of the first ragtime boom widely credited with sparking the interest that led to its revival); Epithalamium, written as a wedding gift for the tireless ragtime advocate Max Morath; and Brass Knuckles, a collaboration between Bolcom and his long-time friend William Albright.

Yet the personal aspect of Bolcom’s approach to ragtime goes even deeper; Lost Lady laments a failed relationship, the bittersweet Graceful Ghost mourns a beloved father, and 2015’s Contentment celebrates a long and happy marriage to mezzo Joan Morris. Some of his rags strike out in new directions—the Biblically-themed Garden of Eden set, concluding (in Bolcom’s words) with Adam and Eve ‘calmly cakewalking out of Paradise’ after the Fall, and the incorporation of tango elements into Estela ‘Rag Latino’ and the heady harmonies of Rag-Tango.

Most of Bolcom’s rags come from that brief but intense revival period—including the Last Rag from 1968, so named as part of a bid by the composer to ditch what he terms a ‘rag addiction’. Judging by the bountiful crop of rags from the following half-decade, this can safely be pronounced an unmitigated failure; Bolcom has made further returns to the genre throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, revealing its enduring hold over him.

Ragtime is sometimes seen as an American counterpart to Chopin’s mazurkas; Bolcom’s use of it as a vehicle for exploration and at times deeply vulnerable self-expression surely cements this. It would be wrong, though, to relegate Joplin and his contemporaries to a John Field-like role of merely inventing a form that awaited someone else’s intervention before it could truly flourish; rather, what Bolcom and his fellow revivalists did for ragtime, showcased brilliantly by Hamelin’s performances, was to take up the baton and write a new chapter. The continued interest in ragtime from artists as diverse as Floridian folk guitarist Baby Gramps, Seattle rock band Curtains For You and Taiwanese Mandopop legend Jay Chou suggests there will be plenty more—and in large part, it is Bolcom whom we have to thank.

Hamelin responds perfectly to the changing shifts of mood and emotion in Bolcom’s multi-faceted exploration of the ragtime genre, clearly illustrating its variety and adaptability. No wonder Bolcom has never quite managed to kick this particular musical habit!

Presto Classical