Sunday, November 30, 2003

Piano Rags

Last week at the library I found a 4-CD set of the complete piano works of Scott Joplin, played by John Arpin. The liner notes call Arpin "the world's No. 1 ragtime pianist," though they don't say how they determine such a title. But I'm not inclined to quibble on this point, since I've been enjoying these recordings immensely. What I love most about the way he plays the rags is his variations. He doesn't play anything straight from "the dots," but adds modifications and embellishments, and once or twice even a short coda. Naturally, this is something my folky background really appreciates. My favorite thing about hearing a good musician (in any style) is finding out what a piece of music suggests to them that I might never have thought of.

This does bring up a little question of style, though. I don't really know much about authentic, un-written ragtime style, or how Joplin might have played rags himself. A lot of Arpin's variations strike me as fairly authentic, some because I recognize a figure or ornament that's written into another rag somewhere, and some just because they "seem okay" to me. Occasionally, something will strike me as rather classical sounding (sort of the way you can tell when a fiddle tune is being played by a violinist). Of course, Joplin himself had some classical training so maybe some of that crept in even when he played it, and thus it might be considered "authentic." Anyway, it's a subject I can't really speak on with any sort of authority, and I'd like to learn more about it. I also checked out the book of Scott Joplin's complete works, which includes a short "School of Ragtime" tutorial in the back, which got my hopes up briefly. But it turned out mostly to be an explanation of notation for the different sorts of syncopation, along with an admonition not to play too fast. Oh well.

Speaking of speed, though, I had one complaint out of all 52 tunes in this set of CDs. Unfortunately, it was on the performance of Bethena, a rag waltz that has always been a really special one for me, which makes it more disappointing to hear a suboptimal rendition of it. He just played it far too slow. Granted, Joplin does have that general statement about not playing ragtime fast, but still, this one just needs a little more lift to bring it to life. I felt like I wanted to just reach in and drag it along to a decent speed. The piece is marked "Valse tempo," which to me would imply a something a little closer to a Viennese waltz than to an American box step or something (though probably not all the way up to Strauss tempos in this particular case). Also, it's subtitled "a concert waltz," so it seems even less likely he would have had slow waltzers in mind. Apparently, Arpin disagrees, though. Too bad.

I'm starting to work on playing more rags myself, now, too. I learned Bethena about a year ago, though I'm still working on playing it decently. And I recently re-started Swipsey, which I tried once a long time ago, and which is going easier now that I've got Bethena under my belt. I've also been reading through Magnetic Rag a bit. I'm thinking I might try working for a short amount of time on lots of different rags in turn, rather than slogging away at one for ages. It would be good for my sight-reading and it would probably train my fingers better, since they'd be exposed to lots of different (but similar) things instead of drilling one piece and only learning that. We'll see how that goes.

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