COMPACT DISC REVIEW
The Complete Piano Music of Scott Joplin
Richard Dowling, pianist
DISC 1: Paragon Rag / A Breeze from Alabama / The Strenuous Life / Something Doing / Pine Apple Rag / Leola / The Easy Winners / The Chrysanthemum / Bethena / Antoinette / The Cascades / Silver Swan Rag / The Favorite / Palm Leaf Rag / Combination March / Binks’ Waltz / Euphonic Sounds / Crush Collision March.
DISC 2: Cleopha / Swipesy / Eugenia / Peacherine Rag / Gladiolus Rag / The Rag-Time Dance / Fig Leaf Rag / Maple Leaf Rag / Elite Syncopations / Augustan Club Waltzes / Sensation (by Joseph Lamb) / Weeping Willow / Kismet Rag / Stoptime Rag / Wall Street Rag / Solace / Magnetic Rag / Sun Flower Slow Drag.
DISC 3: Scott Joplin’s New Rag / The Entertainer / Rose Leaf Rag / Sugar Cane / Reflection Rag / Harmony Club Waltz / Rose-bud March / The Sycamore / Felicity Rag / Lily Queen / The Nonpareil / Search-Light Rag / March Majestic / Country Club / Pleasant Moments / Original Rags / Heliotrope Bouquet / A Real Slow Drag.
One hundred years ago, in 1917 when Scott Joplin died in a New York hospital, there was very little notice of his passing. America’s first original music – ragtime – which he had pioneered, believed in and promoted was fading, soon to be replaced by jazz. But the man once dubbed as the “King of Ragtime” had left a legacy too large to be ignored and slowly but resolutely it began to bubble up into the public’s consciousness, helped immensely by the 1973 hit movie, “The Sting,” which used Joplin’s music in its soundtrack.
A few pioneering pianists were determined to keep this wonderful body of music alive. John W. “Knocky” Parker recorded the first attempt at a complete collection in 1960. Spurred by the success of “The Sting,” Richard Zimmerman recorded a more complete collection in 1974, Dick Hyman followed in 1975, the New York Public Library published the complete sheet music in 1982 and the race was on. Today, a dozen purportedly complete recordings by (mostly) noted pianists are available for purchase and/or download on the internet.
Now in April 2017, as a 100-year commemoration of Joplin’s death, Richard Dowling has released the latest compendium and it may well stand as the definitive one. The definition of “complete” seems to vary according to each artist’s view, but Dowling eschews the phrase “complete works” and instead has chosen “complete piano music.” Thus, the songs for which Joplin supplied music for the lyrics are not included.
Several notable points combine to set this recording apart from the others. First, Dowling respects Joplin’s view that his compositions were a form of African-American classical music of the period and should be treated as such, i.e., played as written. As such, no embellishments or deviations from the scores are found* and all repeats are played. Second, the works are performed in an order that favors interest and programming presentation, thereby abandoning chronological listing and making each disc a stand-alone concert.
Third, the CDs are accompanied by a 72-page booklet, in which co-producer Bryan Wright analyzes each piece – an amazing reference work in itself! – and each includes a tiny color reproduction of the cover, faithfully restored by Bill Edwards. Topping it off, there is a 10 page biography of Joplin, also by Wright. Finally, in preparation for two back-to-back Carnegie Hall concerts, Dowling committed all 54 compositions to memory, thus allowing him to fully concentrate his conservatory-trained skills in dynamics, touch, rhythm, pedaling and dexterity in order to bring Joplin to life again for us through his music.
These are studio recordings, recorded in advance so as to have the package available for sale at the Carnegie Hall concerts on the actual date of Joplin’s death. In no way does this diminish their quality, which is outstanding. The sound is crisp and clear and the piano is a top-of-the line Steinway. The cover art and package design, conceived and created by Wright, is compelling and serves to accentuate the attention to detail found throughout the package.
Ragtime in general (and Joplin in particular) is fortunate to have Richard Dowling as its champion. This recording is a winner in every way. Most aficionados will already have a favorite “Complete Joplin” in their libraries and will have their own reasons for valuing it. However, you owe it to yourselves to investigate Dowling’s recording, for I predict you will be captivated. Highest recommendation.
(*Dowling made a single exception and ignored the repeat of the crash sequence in Crush Collision March, saying “…we do not need two train wrecks.”)
Available from <www.richard-dowling.com/recordings.html>, <www.rivermontrecords.com>, as well as various on-line retailers. Prices will vary.