Top Ear

James Levine plays…Scott Joplin?

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Jeremy Lee writes

James Levine enjoyed a long and fruitful association with RCA in the analog years, recording amongst other things cycles of Mahler, Brahms and Schumann symphonies, several Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Mozart symphonies, as well as numerous opera recordings.  As a pianist as well as a conductor, he accompanied Lynn Harrell in several cello sonata recordings, notably a cycle of Beethoven’s complete cello sonatas.  So how on earth did this album of Scott Joplin come about?

According to the back cover of the LP jacket, reproduced here (in microscopic print, I must add) at the back of the booklet, the producer Peter Dellheim heard Levine play the Maple Leaf Rag during breaks in the recording sessions of the Beethoven cello sonatas with Harrell, decided that it was the “most convincing and infectious rendering” of the rag that he had heard, and proceeded to record twelve such rags at the end of the two weekend recording sessions.  Dellheim was absolutely right in his judgment:  these are endlessly entertaining performances of these famous Joplin’s rags, in some instances surpassing even the classic Rifkin (Nonesuch) recording of 1970 that sold over a million copies and put Joplin back on the musical map.

It only takes a comparative listen between the overlapping repertoire of the Levine and Rifkin discs to realise that most of the time, Levine captures the music’s verve and energy better than does Rifkin, simply by employing fractionally quicker tempi as well as a lighter, less metallic touch.  Taking the ubiquitous The Entertainer as an example, while Rifkin lets the rhythmic and melodic tension sag by overpedalling as well as a pace that strikes me as marginally too slow, Levine gets the cool grooviness of the music at a tempo that’s simply right–not too slow, but never so fast as to throw Joplin’s written caution (“Do not play this piece fast! It is never right to play ragtime fast!”) to the wind.  Moreover, I find Rifkin’s embellishments gratuitous and unidiomatic.  The same goes for the Maple Leaf Rag:  Levine’s is lilting and vivacious (swung), while Rifkin’s is slightly heavy-handed and rigid (not swung).  But in some pieces such as Scott Joplin’s New Rag, while both Levine and Rifkin deliver energy and stylishness aplenty at virtually identical tempi, I actually prefer Rifkin simply because his metallic sound, heavier touch and more barnstorming demeanor injects the music with more rhythmic vitality and forward momentum.

So while in some cases I may prefer Rifkin’s performance over Levine’s, I find Levine to be more satisfying overall, and in terms of sonics there’s no comparison:  while both recordings can’t hope to match the realism of today’s recording standards, RCA’s warm and balanced sound roundly beats Nonesuch’s reverberant, clangy and distant recording.  My only quibble is the short playing time (just shy of 42 mins), though that was perfectly acceptable when it was on LP.  At any rate, every piano lover should at least own a disc of Joplin’s rags, and thanks to nice remastering for CD courtesy of BMG Japan, this should be the disc of choice.

Details

  • Album name:  James Levine plays Scott Joplin
  • Performers:  James Levine (piano)
  • Label:  RCA BVCC-38367
  • Sonics:  Stereo ADD
  • Total playing time:  41:52
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Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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