Passions according to Joshua: Claverack Landing and Helsinki Hudson presents Joshua Rifkin

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Claverack Landing, Gwen Gould, Director, at Helsinki Hudson

Joshua Rifkin, piano
Rags, Tangos, Preludes, Fugues
Music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Scott Joplin, and Ernesto Nazareth

Bach: Prelude in C Major S.846/1; Joplin: “The Entertainer”; Bach: Prelude and Fugue in F Major S.856; Joplin, “Elite Syncopations”; Nazareth: “Vitorioso”; Bach: Prelude and Fugue in A♭ Major S.862; Nazareth: “Plangente”; Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C Minor S.847; Joplin: “Solace”; Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B♭ Minor S.866; Nazareth: “Fon-Fon!”; Joplin: “Magnetic Rag”; Bach: Prelude and Fugue in B♭ Minor S.867.

When was it? 1972, 1973? Joshua Rifkin performed Scott Joplin at Alice Tully Hall. I had recently been bitten by the Joplin bug, largely owing to Mr. Rifkin’s recordings, and remember hearing his lilting interpretations of the “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Elite Syncopations,” and “Magnetic Rag.” His recordings on Nonesuch spurred a peculiarly “Rifkinesque” revival of ragtime. Recordings of rags, even of Joplin’s, had been plentiful, but all done in a heavily nuanced “honky-tonk” technique with performers like Knocky Parker, Max Morath, or Dick Hyman; Joplin, an African-American genius who became a sensation with the “Maple Leaf Rag” of 1899, was poorly served when performed  in the “finger-bustin'” style of Zez Confrey or Euday Bowman. Mr. Rifkin’s revisionist approach to Joplin was to play these rags “as is,” with little embellishment rubato, or improvisation. Mr. Rifkin still adheres to a reserved comme scritto style that typifies his approach to all of his musical passions, including his pioneering approach to J. S. Bach. After Mr. Rifkin’s recordings, Joplin was seen as a master of a genre that straddled both classical and popular idioms. In his poised interpretation, Mr. Rifkin clearly underscores Joplin’s own view of himself as a composer expressing African-American idioms in a classical, Western formalism. While few interpreters following Mr. Rifkin’s successful albums performed Joplin in this crystalline way, classically trained musicians throughout the seventies, influenced by his recordings, took a far more serious look at ragtime and at Joplin’s music in particular. As a “cross-over” phenomenon, it was clear that Marvin Hamlisch’s huge public success with Joplin’s “The Entertainer” in the popular film The Sting owed much to Mr. Rifkin’s groundbreaking work.

Cover of Joshua Rifkin's First Joplin Album

While engaging us in ragtime though his neo-classical sensibilities, Mr. Rifkin, a noted Bach scholar, was revolutionizing the way we would listen to Bach. After receiving a Fulbright for Bach studies in Göttingen, he was initially groomed by the greatest Bach scholar of the century, Alfred Dürr. It was through Joshua Rifkin’s research that we know definitively when Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was first performed. Moreover, Mr. Rifkin was to put forth a solution to one of the essential problems in performing Baroque vocal music. By careful examination of Bach’s vocal performing parts, and a fresh reading of Bach’s letter of August 23, 1730, “A Short but Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music; with certain modest reflections on the decline of same,” Mr. Rifkin has argued that the “chorus” in Bach’s time consisted only of solo singers: the cantatas, the B-Minor Mass, and the Passions were thus designed for a small, albeit gifted, suite of singers. By extension, Mr. Rifkin’s thesis argued that the typical chapel choir in Germany during the Baroque era consisted of one singer to a vocal part. His argument, while completely consistent with scholarly evidence, remains to this day a fiercely contested interpretation. Putting forth a consistent argument is not tantamount to a proof. Many have argued that Bach’s “ideal” chorus would have been fleshed out to three or four singers to a part. However, no one has been able to present a solid counter-argument to Mr. Rifkin’s thesis based solely on the historical record. Choral conductors who specialize in Bach (most notably John Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe, and Masaaki Suzuki) have largely rejected the Rifkin one-to-a-part approach; Andrew Parrott, however, is one conductor who has been persuaded of the solo approach, and others are being won over. Undoubtedly it will be a matter of dispelling our traditional English bias for the anonymous sound of large choral groups in favor of chamber singing.

Ernesto Nazareth

A third passion of Mr. Rifkin has been the piano works of Brazilian composer Ernesto Júlio de Nazareth, in particular, his piano tangos. A contemporary of Joplin, Nazareth wrote works that bear a similarity to Joplin in their adherence to dance-based rhythms combined with lyric melodies and insinuating harmonic progressions. Both men breathe the warmth of southern climes in the cooler, dispassionate meters and forms of traditional Western-European piano music. Both composers wrote in a simple but elegant way that never strove to overwhelm the listener with cascades of virtuosity, as was the case with post-Liszt piano culture. Instead, these masters of pianistic understatement wrote “parlor” music for amateur musicians, who in the late nineteenth-century consisted largely of women. Technically within the grasp of home musicians, the music had a magical and addictive impact on the performer, even in a first reading. Yet, the dynamics of these pieces never rise above a respectable forte. The harmonic changes in Joplin’s rags never fail to scintillate, but do so with the utmost quiet resolve.

Appending and interspersing selections from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I with the Joplin and Nazareth works was a programmatic suggestion made by a friend of Mr. Rifkin. Thus, there are immediate segues from a Bach prelude or prelude-fugue pair to a (usually) same key Joplin/Nazareth piece. The familiar C Major prelude from Book I (S.846/1) was humorously paired with Joplin’s “The Entertainer – A Ragtime Two-Step.” Some three-way juxtapositions were felicitous, like the F Major Prelude and Fugue (S.856) with Joplin’s “Elite Syncopations” and Nazareth’s “Vitorioso Tango.” In another sequence, the A♭ Major Prelude and Fugue (S.862) paired with Nazareth’s melancholic “Plangente” evoked a sense of emotional contrast. The extremely “busy” Prelude in B♭major and subsequent Fugue with its insistent E♭s may have suggested Nazareth’s “Fon Fon! Tango” to Mr. Rifkin with its depiction of the noisy streets and car horns in Rio de Janeiro (“fon fon” means “honk honk”). The coupling of Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag –  Syncopations Classiques,” one of Joplin’s last works before succumbing to dementia, was a fitting valediction before the Prelude and Fugue in B♭-Minor (S.867), with its tragic grandeur. There is something rather timeless about the poised beauty of these two works.

Mr. Rifkin’s Bach is very secco indeed; the pedal was rarely used, and any overt “pianism” was avoided. Yet, his tone was not the hard, harpsichord-like one that characterized Glenn Gould’s Bach. Nor did Mr. Rifkin indulge in any embellishments, a practice that, when overdone, can drown Bach’s true voice in a clatter of musicological caricature. His tempos were moderate and sensible, and his phrasing always emphasized the melodic structure of the work. At times, I thought, his tone was attenuated, but I remembered the vivid electronic acoustic of Helsinki, and that it probably required Mr. Rifkin to compensate with a sparing touch. The last encore, Joplin’s “Gladiolus Rag” – which followed from an unexpected inclusion of Chopin – was Joplin at his greatest: the flowery final sections, with the harmonic intensity of a southern spiritual, were breathtakingly performed.

The title for evening was “Rags, Tangos, Preludes, Fugues.” As such, it placed the North and South American genres on an equal footing with the hallowed forms of Western Culture’s distant past. Yet, Joplin and Nazareth found it tragically difficult as career musicians. Bach was never a pauper, and was actually a comfortably employed burgher in the city of Leipzig. Joplin and Nazareth, brushing along the fringes of native and Western cultures, both died in tragic and miserable circumstances; each was finally interred for mental illness: Joplin succumbed to advanced dementia paralytica, while Nazareth committed suicide after the deaths of his wife and daughter.

Hearing Joplin’s rags and Nazareth’s tangos in the inimitable Rifkin way, allowing the music to speak for itself, was a perfect complement to his honest interpretations of Bach. No other musician has allowed composers to speak so frankly and intimately. Musical honesty has been the guiding principal in Joshua Rifkin’s career, and his diverse musical passions have been inspirational to a generation of Beatles-era classical music fans. He promised to bring his Bach ensemble to Helsinki Hudson under the auspices of ClaverackLanding if the demand was sufficient. We can only hope that his followers will be there in force, and, perhaps, some of his critics who still need some persuading.

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