Richard Dowling – The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin

Joplin
Title: The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin

Artist: Richard Dowling

Label: Rivermont

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: May 19, 2017

 

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death (and roughly 150 years since his estimated birth date of 1867), pianist Richard Dowling offers this splendid 3-CD box set containing Joplin’s complete piano works—over 50 waltzes, marches and rags. These include all authenticated Joplin compositions as well as those for which he received an arranging credit. The same cycle of works were performed in their entirety by Dowling in two historic concerts at Carnegie Hall on April 1, 1917, exactly 100 years to the day that Joplin died in New York City.

Now widely considered one of America’s most important composers of the late 19th – early 20th century, Joplin’s first solo piano works were published in 1896. His earliest piano rags, including “Original Rag” and the iconic “Maple Leaf Rag,” were printed three years later. This, of course, was the genre that made Joplin famous and cemented his place in history as “The King of Ragtime,” while ragtime’s distinctly African American syncopated rhythms formed the foundation of jazz.  Joplin’s career reached its peak from 1908-1914, culminating in the completion of his opera Treemonisha and his most innovative ragtime compositions, including “Fig Leaf” (1908), “Wall Street Rag” (1909), “Euphonic Sounds” (1909) and “Magnetic Rag” (1914). Sadly, Joplin died three years later at age 49—without realizing his plans for a symphony, piano concerto, or the staging of his opera—and nearly forgotten since ragtime music had been overtaken by jazz. Even more tragic from an archival perspective, there are no surviving letters or other personal papers.

Richard Dowling has made a career of interpreting the works of American composers, from Louis Gottschalk and George Gershwin to Eubie Blake and Fats Waller. Three of his previous CDs are devoted to ragtime music. As an official Steinway Artist, Dowling’s instrument of choice for The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin was a Hamburg Steinway concert grand. While one might argue this is surely a much finer instrument than any available to Joplin in his lifetime and thus is not a “period instrument,” it certainly speaks to Joplin’s desire for his works to be considered and performed as “higher class music,” and one can’t deny the magnificence of the piano’s tone and the richness of the recording. In all other matters, Dowling states that he followed Joplin’s performance instructions to the letter: “[my rags were] harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as written…to complete the sense intended.” To that end, he recorded Joplin’s works “without adding embellishments or improvisations as is often done … carefully observing his phrasing, voice leading, placement of rests, use of ties, articulations, and dynamics.”

Dowling approaches each work with incredible sensitivity and scholarly intent. Noting that “Joplin’s piano music sings like that of Chopin,” he definitely strives for this effect. His carefully chosen tempos, magisterial tone color, delicate phrasing, and subtle dynamics bring out the sophistication and beauty of each composition. I particularly enjoyed listening to each of Dowling’s stated favorites, including ““The Crush Collision March” and “Antoinette” (for their drama), “Sugar Cane” and “Sun Flower Slow Drag” (for their sheer virtuosity).”

Dowling and musicologist Bryan S. Wright, who served as co-producer and recording engineer, eschewed the standard chronological programming order in favor of creating a more harmonious musical flow. They succeed brilliantly, and an alphabetical index allows listeners to quickly locate any work among the 54 tracks. Wright also composed the liner notes for the accompanying 72 page booklet, offering tremendous insight with his analysis of each composition, pointing out Joplin’s penchant for striking key changes and innovative modulations. Also included are full color illustrations of the original sheet music covers.

Though there are many recordings of Joplin’s piano works, including the landmark interpretations by Joshua Rifkin who was at the forefront of the Joplin revival in the 1970s, Richard Dowling’s The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin is highly recommended for its superb sound, excellent packaging and, last but certainly not least, his carefully articulated, virtuosic performance.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

 

 

Piano Works – Zenobia Powell Perry

Zenobia

Title: Piano Works—Zenobia Powell Perry

Artists: Josephine Gandolfi, Deanne Tucker, LaDoris Hazzard Cordell

Label: Cambria

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: February 12, 2016

 

 

Composer Zenobia Powell Perry’s long lifespan witnessed momentous upheavals in the course of African-American music; when she was born in 1908, Scott Joplin still had nine years to live and when she died at 96 in 2004 Tupac Shakur had already been gone for eight. The music collected on Cambria’s Piano Works: Zenobia Powell Perry mostly belongs to the latter half of her life, from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and is performed by three pianists: Josephine Gandolfi, Deanne Tucker and LaDoris Hazzard Cordell. Gandolfi and Tucker join forces on a duet arrangement (by Gandolfi) of music from Perry’s 1987 opera Tawawa House that is handily the most appealing and immediate music in the collection. Tawawa House tells the story of a mixed-race resort in Tawawa Springs, Ohio that served as the predecessor to Wilberforce College, the first historically black institution of higher learning in the United States. The dramatic potential of this little known subject, combined with Perry’s interest in the folk idiom of the era around the Civil War, moved her to write some especially exciting and engaging music for it. Perry held a long time composition residency at Central State University, which began within Wilberforce, and while some listeners may feel that Tawawa House smacks of Copland and/or certain William Grant Still pieces like Miss Sally’s Party, it strikes this listener as being in tune with the music of the French neo-classical school exemplified by Les Six, an interest Perry would have shared with Copland.

That’s not to say that the rest isn’t equally captivating, but it’s more of a mixed bag. The seven pieces that open the disc are obviously for use in elementary music teaching and total to no more than eight minutes of the disc’s 54 minute playing time; their impression is rather slight, even the second time around. The more extended pieces outside of the suite are very interesting; Perry shares with Erik Satie a sort of disdain, or at least disinterest, in usual formal development schemes, though her gestures are linked through internal formal and thematic relationships that make clear that these are not transcribed improvisations, even if her choices are sometimes a little baffling, such as in the conclusion of Times Seven.

Perry is strongly attracted to big chords and sometimes her textures are rather thick. In the 1930s, she assisted choral director William Levi Dawson at Tuskegee and her Homage to William Levi Dawson on his 90th Birthday attempts to take the standard accompaniment used at that time for spirituals into a more instrumental direction. Some listeners may find it heavy-handed, but it is a sincere and deeply felt creation, and that summarizes much of what is heard here. Beyond that, Piano Works: Zenobia Powell Perry is a little technically challenged; it has a couple of glitchy edits and is a very quiet recording overall, so be prepared to crank it up.

Reviewed by David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis

Daahoud Salim – Erwin Schulhoff: Forbidden Music

salim
Title: Erwin Schulhoff – Forbidden Music

Artist: Daahoud Salim, piano; Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam; Andrew Grams, conductor

Label: Challenge Classics

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: September 9, 2016

 

Challenge Classics International, a Netherlands based label, recently released this disc featuring the early piano works of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). The Czech-born composer of German heritage was himself a gifted pianist who performed internationally. When Schulhoff relocated to Berlin in early 1922, he was introduced to American ragtime, dance and jazz music through the record collection of his friend George Grosz, an artist affiliated with the Berlin Dada group. This decade was extremely prolific for Schulhoff, who wrote many successful works synthesizing jazz and classical music, four of which are featured on Forbidden Music. The album’s title denotes the increasingly tenuous place of jazz in Germany by the late 1930s, which was one of the vilified genres designated by the Nazi party as “Entartete Musik” (degenerate music). Tragically, as a communist of Jewish heritage, Schulhoff was deported to a concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died in 1942. His music, considered unfashionable in the decades immediately following his death, has seen a much deserved revival over the last 20 years with numerous recordings of his works in print.

Pianist Daahoud Salim is certainly up to the challenge of interpreting Schulhoff’s music. Initially trained by his father, American composer and jazz saxophonist Abdu Salim, Daahoud studied both jazz and classical piano at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.  The album begins with a brilliant reading of Schulhoff’s complex Konzert für Klavier und Kleines Orchester, op. 43 (1923), featuring the Symphony Orchestra of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam led by Andrew Grams.  The initial “Molto Sostenuto” movement flows into Salim’s rapturous piano cadenza in the “Sostenuto” section, then sweeps into the cinematic “Allegro alla Jazz” with full orchestra. This final movement is loosely scored ABA, with a mid-section interlude for violin and piano reminiscent of café music of the era.

The remaining works, all for solo piano, allow Salim to display his brilliant technique. “Troisième Suite pour piano pour la main gauche” (1926) consists of five short movements that begin in a contemplative manner, gradually increasing in complexity through the third movement “Zingara,” before concluding in an intricate, rhythmically percussive finale.  In Suite dansante en jazz (1931), each of the six short movements represent a different dance style: Stomp, Strait, Waltz, Tango, Slow, and Fox-Trot.  The final movement sounds particularly “Gershwin-esque,” but overall this work holds up well and doesn’t sound overly dated. Salim performs with aplomb, bringing out the nuances of each dance style. He is joined by Russian pianist Nadezda Filippova for the closing work, Ironien op. 34, a six movement suite for piano four-hands that’s light-hearted and whimsical, with touches of Debussy and ragtime.

Forbidden Music is a fine introduction to the classical side of Daahoud Salim, who is already making waves throughout Europe with his jazz quintet—they just released their debut recording to critical acclaim.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss