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Music Review: Scott Joplin, Volume 1 by Alexander Peskanov

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An important distinction not made in the introductory article to this series, “A Scott Joplin Primer” is the type of piano used by the performers. Joshua Rifkin’s Joplin is played on a standard grand piano, as is Alexander Peskanov’s on Naxos’ Scott Joplin, Volume 1. The grand piano gives Joplin that concert hall sound; but much Joplin is played on an upright grand. The difference between the two is certainly sonority, the standard grand having color more diffuse than the tight-toned upright. Both have their special charms.

One must wonder who decides which rags a given pianist will record. Peskanov, in this first volume would have scored the two best known rags, “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer” for no other reason than to garner public interest in the series. But just as Messiah is not the only composition by Handel, “The Entertainer” is not the be-all-and-end-all of Scott Joplin.

As one would expect, the disc opens with a brisk “Maple Leaf Rag.” Joplin was very specific in the meter notation of his pieces, stating that "ragtime should never be played fast." However, what is considered fast is subject to personal and period interpretation. Joplin’s biographer Rudi Blesh, elaborates, “Joplin's injunction needs to be read in the light of his time, when a whole school of "speed" players … were ruining the fine rags. Most frequently felled by this quack-virtuoso musical mayhem was the Maple Leaf. Joplin's concept of "slow" was probably relative to the destructive prestos of his day.

What is considered a fast tempo makes for an interesting case study. Rifkin’s “Maple Leaf” clocks in at 3:13, while Peskanov’s follows at 3:11. Scott Kirby’s second recording of Maple Leaf, speeds in at 2:57, with an introduction of one bar of the second theme. Rifkin and Peskanov are respectful of Joplin’s score while Kirby very well could be criticized by Blesh for “…ruining [this] fine rag.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Peskanov takes more chances than Rifkin, and Kirby more chances than Peskanov. The result is a thrilling performance by Kirby that would cause sudden death in more conservative ragtimers. Peskanov plays this middle-of-the-road to his advantage.

Peskanov’s collection contains several notable rags in the Joplin repertoire including “Heliotrope Bouquet” co-written with the opium-addled genius Louis Chauvin. Peskanov carefully retains the calm center of this piece while often lagging behind and jumping in front of the beat. The effect is one of drama. Studied listeners will note Peskanov’s departures and elaborations compared with other pianists and will appreciate them for the delicious artifacts they are. “The Entertainer” is played with punch and gusto, figures tart and tight. Peskanov’s tempo is in keeping with contemporary performance speeds. The pianist’s dynamics once again lend a thrilling degree of drama to the pieces, ensuring they are never boring. “The Easy Winners” contain brilliant flourishes of liberty Peskanov takes with the score. More precise than Kirby and less didactic than Rifkin, Peskanov plants a spring garden of Joplin with his interpretations.

But none of these previously mentioned pieces are the real test for the pianist. Peskanov closes the disc with the ragtime waltz “Bethena” written within months after the composer’s wife’s death. It is a complex piece compositionally and dynamically. Peskanov captures the sorrow, loss, and beauty perfectly with the standard grand piano and its broader tonal palette. This disc inaugurates another Naxos series that should more than win over the fussiest of ragtimers.

Personnel: Alexander Peskanov: piano.

Selections: Maple Leaf Rag; Heliotrope Bouquet: 'A Slow Drag Two-Step'; Pine Apple Rag; Solace: 'A Mexican Serenade'; Paragon Rag; Pleasant Moments: 'Ragtime Waltz'; Elite Syncopations; Original Rag; Fig Leaf: 'A High-Class Rag'; The Entertainer: 'A Ragtime Two-Step'; The Easy Winners; Country Club Rag; The Strenuous Life; Bethena: 'A Concert Waltz'.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...