By Jonathan Blumhofer
This is the definitive recording of William Bolcom’s rags, complete or excerpted: a triumph for the pianist and the composer, as well as a grandly spirited, accessible, inventive journey for any who care to join them on it.
The year isn’t quite half over, but 2022 is shaping up to be quite the annum for ragtime. A few weeks ago, Lara Downes offered an affecting reconsideration of Scott Joplin (Arts Fuse review). Now comes Marc-André Hamelin’s traversal of William Bolcom’s complete catalogue of rags.
That Bolcom, who’s in his mid-eighties, would be such a prolific writer in this archaic genre isn’t exactly surprising. He’s one of contemporary music’s great eclectics, after all, and he devoted many years of his career to exploring the American songbook with his wife, Joan Morris. Still, even the composer seems a touch taken aback in his informative liner notes, noting with amazement that, though he began writing these pieces on a whim in the late-1960s he kept returning to the form until 2015.
How happy for all of us that he did.
These are, on the one hand, unfailingly tuneful and charming pieces. They chart both Bolcom’s unique career — his straddling the worlds of serious and popular musics, as well as his interactions with various luminaries like Eubie Blake and Rudi Blesh — and his natural gift for melodic invention.
At the same time, they’re fantastically inventive and rigorous, compositionally and harmonically. What other composer of rags so gleefully calls for knocking on the piano, as Bolcom does in Kockout and The Serpent’s Kiss? Or so revels in the thundering sonorities of cluster chords, as happens in Brass Knuckles (which Bolcom co-wrote with William Albright)?
What’s more, these 27 pieces evince a huge range of character. Many, like the charming Tabby Cat Walk (with its knowing silences just before the end), are outwardly playful. The Brooklyn Dodge and Raggin’ Rudy swagger brilliantly.
Underneath these rags’ carefree surfaces, though, there often lie deep reservoirs of melancholy. So it is with The Eternal Feminine, Graceful Ghost, and Contentment — the last Bolcom’s final rag (as he promises in his program note). Most wistful, perhaps, is The Lost Lady Rag, which was written in memory of the composer’s failed first marriage.
In Hamelin’s hands, though, nothing is too gloomy. The latter sings a bit like a 1 a.m. torch song you might hear as a bar closes down: no bitterness, just sadness. Graceful Ghost, perhaps Bolcom’s best-known rag, moves at a surprisingly quick clip here, but stands nobly as a result.
Throughout, the pianist makes light of the music’s technical demands. These are formidable: Bolcom’s writing is consistently virtuosic. Yet they’re nothing to Hamelin, who sounds as if he were born to play this repertoire. Voicings and balances are excellent. The energy level — especially rhythmically — never flags.
What’s more, Hamelin takes particular care to draw out the right color for each movement. Accordingly, all 27 pieces inhabit their own distinct spaces. True, in some of them — like the expansive Rag-Tango and Estrela ‘Rag Latino’ — that might have happened on its own. But, especially given the sheer size of this undertaking, it brings to life even the smallest compositions. That’s a key distinction between a fine musician and a great artist; Hamelin is very much in the latter class.
As such, the whole album stands as the definitive recording of Bolcom rags, complete or excerpted: a triumph for the pianist and the composer, as well as a grandly spirited, accessible, inventive journey for any who care to join them on it.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.