The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin by Richard Dowling

The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin by Richard DowlingThe concert hall experience is by its very nature ephemeral—once the notes drift and reverberate they are remembered only by those in attendance. Sometimes, however, a studio recording captures a performance so vividly that the concert hall experience is brought to the listener at home—so that the concert may be relived (if one has been so lucky as to hear the artist play the material on the stage) or enjoyed as if in concert for the first time.

On April 1, 2017, we purchased Richard Dowling’s Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin (Rivermont BSW-2240) on the day it became available for sale. By no coincidence, it so happened that we bought the three-CD set at the very concert series of Joplin’s complete piano works played by Dowling on the one hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death.

Red Wood Coast

The concert series, as I discussed in my “Static” column, was magnificent. (The Carnegie concerts have also been reviewed by Bill Hoffman, in a “Jazz Travels” column to be published in the June 2017 issue of TST.) There was a sense of triumph—and relief—in the final note of the second concert. It was important that everything go as planned on the Joplin centenary—and it did. Part of the relief was that the Rivermont CDs, three years in the planning, recording, mastering, and annotating, arrived at Richard Dowling’s New York apartment one day before the concert. It could not have been cut any closer.

The stress—and near-heartbreak—were worth the result. The set is a gem, with a beautifully-illustrated booklet with detailed liner notes by Bryan Wright. All of Rivermont’s productions are of the highest quality, but the book is a stand-alone work of art. Glenn Robison, who also attended the concerts (and who contributed the excellent and comprehensive notes to Rivermont’s Shannon Four CD) noted that the ink still smelled “fresh from the printer” on the Joplin notes.

It took me a while after returning home to open the shrink wrap and play the CDs. I was still reveling the memory of the notes played at Carnegie. The CDs live up to one’s expectations and exceed them. The idea from the beginning was to create a definitive set of the complete works as Joplin himself would have played them or would have wanted them played. Tempo was critical. So was the sensitivity of interpretation.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The works were played on a Model D Hamburg Steinway in a studio in West Palm Beach, Florida. The sessions were over five days in July 2015. The initial recordings were remastered for the best possible listening experience. Bryan Wright stated in the notes, “To experience the thrilling dynamic range of the music in the greatest possible clarity, we recommend setting your tonal controls to ‘neutral’ and adjusting the volume to a comfortable level”—and then leaving those settings alone for the duration of the program.

The performances are arranged, not chronologically, but in an emotionally-satisfying narrative arc on each disc. Along the way, we hear both well-known and obscure Joplin compositions: “Paragon Rag,” “Bethena,” “Euphonic Sounds,” “Gladiolus Rag,” and all the rest. There are fifty-four selections in all. Hearing all the pieces played so expressively one develops a renewed appreciation for Scott Joplin as a serious composer. My own new favorite is “Wall Street Rag.”

A stunning surprise at the end of the second concert—and thankfully included at the end of the third disc—is “A Real Slow Drag,” never written by Joplin as a solo piano piece at all but arranged by W. Brett Youens from Joplin’s piano-vocal score of his opera Treemonisha. The main theme of the piece, says Bryan Wright, “is valedictory and heroic in nature.” There are echoes of Beethoven in this selection—but also something entirely new and equally vital. And it was a fitting valediction for both this landmark set and the historic concert. The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin is a heroic achievement by both Richard Dowling and Bryan Wright.

The Complete Piano Works of Scott Joplin
Richard Dowling, pianist, Rivermont BSW-2240

Andy Senior is the Publisher of The Syncopated Times and on occasion he still gets out a Radiola! podcast for our listening pleasure.

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