The Complete Rags
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
Hyperion CDA68391/2 128:16 mins (2 discs)
When Scott Joplin’s music was re-discovered in the late 1960s, it had the side-effect of inspiring contemporary composers to write rags of their own, and Bolcom was one of the most prolific. Like many, he soon extended the elements of ragtime to include harmonies, textures and rhythms which Joplin could never have imagined, but always keeping the essence of the style. You can hear that straight away in Eubie’s Lucky Day, which Bolcom describes as a ‘supercharged evocation’ of Eubie Blake’s CharlestonRag. It’s also extremely virtuosic, and, given Marc-André Hamelin’s pedigree, it’s not surprising that his performance is a tour de force. I’m not so taken with the second track, Epithalamium, a much more reflective, slower rag, where his use of rubato robs the music of its pulse. This also affects other slow pieces, including Graceful Ghost, where Bolcom specifically says ‘Don’t drag’ at the top of the score.
But most of the time Hamelin inhabits the spirit of the music, which has more variety than you might expect: there’s not a dud among the 27 tracks. There are nods to other dance forms: the tango pops up more than once, putting me in mind of the Saudades do Brasil by Bolcom’s one time teacher Milhaud. The diabolical (and diabolically difficult) Serpent’s Kiss and Poltergeist become almost atonal at times, and Hamelin knows when to swing the rhythms and when to keep them straight – instructions in the score rarely make this clear. A clear picture of an essential chapter in American music.