Giorgio Koukl | 3 AUG 2022
Since its origins at the end of the 19th century, Rag (or if you prefer, Ragtime) has influenced many composers of world fame, starting with Antonín Dvořák, reportedly the first European interested in this music, and continuing with Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and many others, only to nearly disappear in the 1930s, ceding place to jazz and other musical forms.
The reemergence of this delicious and highly original musical form in the late 1960s is a lucky circumstance.
The fact that composers of the caliber of William Bolcom (b. 1938) are interested, or even obsessed with ragtime to the point of writing nearly 30 pieces within more than four decades, is not surprising. At least here in Europe, Bolcom is far more known for his ponderous, inventive, and extremely well-orchestrated symphonic music, so discovering his more chamber-like music is a joy. Having this music interpreted by one of the most brilliant pianists of today, Marc-Andrè Hamelin, is an auspicious combination. The results are, as clearly foreseeable, excellent.
The booklet, written by the composer himself, describes the 27 individual rags well, following a chronological order, while Mr. Hamelin prefers mixing them following his musical preferences and dramaturgical needs. At first sight, this is a little confusing.
Obviously, the most famous two rags cannot be absent here: “The Serpent’s Hiss” from The Garden of Eden (1969), where a complementary rhythm rapped on the piano lid is requested, and even some whistling at the end before a real explosion ends the piece, both things done with bravado by Mr. Hamelin, except that he is using some kind of wooden percussion, probably claves, due to imperfect rendering of raps for a microphone. This technique was for the first time introduced by Alexander Tcherepnin and used by him to rarefy the sound; it is now widely used and is very effective. Mr. Bolcom uses it again in Knockout “A Rag“ (2008).
The other piece which entered into many pianists’ repertoire is the “Poltergeist” (1971) from the cycle Three Ghost Rags.
A technically demanding piece, the ghost is sometimes incredibly fast, mostly reappearing in places where you would not expect him. Here is the field where Mr. Hamelin can display all his well-known pianistic techniques, and he does so with visible joy and seemingly no effort.
There are other, lesser-known rags worth noting.
Brass Knuckles (1969) was written in collaboration with William Albright, a fact which is just another rare achievement in the world of composers.
Here the pianist is requested to produce surprise clusters, mainly in the extreme low and high range of the piano, probably an excruciatingly painful procedure; thus the “Brass Knuckles” title is more than justified.
There are many other examples of how ragtime music can be conceived, like the gentle ones: Gardenia (1970) or the chronologically last rag composed by Mr. Bolcom called Contentment (2015). This music is fine, but the composer and the pianist are a little less impressive, producing some far too “classical” music sound.
There are some attempts of cross-over experiences of various continents like the delicious Rag-Tango (1971, revised 1988), which with its nearly 9 minutes is the longest track of the CD, or Estela “Rag Latino” (2010), both very effective and frankly delectable.
Generally speaking, William Bolcom, in his playful harmonic invention, never exceeds the firmly tonal range. He has, so to speak, nothing in common with Igor Stravinsky or Tibor Harsanyi, both writing music with no single tonal harmony and clearly provocative.
Bolcom obtains a gentler flair of quasi-classical music, and it is also in this way that the pianist Hamelin interprets his scores. It is the mostly notable quality of this installment and a genuine joy to listen to. ■