Elena Kats-Chernin, an Australian composer of Uzbek background, began to write piano rags for her own enjoyment, as a break from composing in modernist idioms. The rags have proven successful and apparently have begun to inform her work in larger forms. Their success isn't surprising, for Kats-Chernin manipulates the rag form in distinctive ways, and her subtlety in drawing connections between ragtime and the other semi-refined forms that surrounded it 100 years ago is especially impressive for a composer who is not American (although at its peak ragtime's appeal was international). Of the 24 selections on the album, for either piano solo or piano and violin, about half are denoted as rags; the rest have simple thematic or generic titles (although there are, curiously in view of the album title and of the popularity of the term in the 1910s decade, no "blues"). Kats-Chernin's ragtime is in the restrained classical-piano style popularized by pianist Joshua Rifkin in his recordings of Scott Joplin's rags in the 1970s; it is reflective, moderate in tempo, even melancholy at times, and never peppy. The music is firmly situated in the ragtime genre by the composer's frequent use of characteristic duple-meter syncopations generated by tying a pair of sixteenth notes from the end of the first beat to the beginning of the second. Within the fairly conventional rag form, however, Kats-Chernin offers striking variety. She extends both the harmony and the formal structure of ragtime, taking the former into late-Romantic realms. Her free formal shapes, which still respect ragtime's strict origins in the march, are perhaps the most impressive aspect of her music; ragtime's sets of fours, eights, and sixteens are broken down into shifting pairs that can go in many directions. Each piece has a slightly different mood, programmatically identified by the composer in enjoyable personal booklet notes. Also impressive is the way the non-rag pieces on the album fit with the rags. Ragtime shared the salons of early twentieth century America (once the upper middle classes got over their shock and distaste for this African-American form) with waltzes, preludes, and other kinds of light instrumental music with simple forms, and Kats-Chernin's small pieces update what has been called potted-palm music in just the same way as her rags do with the basic ragtime language. The overall result is something like what might have happened if Debussy had deeply engaged with ragtime rather than trivializing it -- an hour of music that is light without ever being conventional or formulaic, well crafted, totally accessible, and entirely original. A real find.
Elena Kats-Chernin: Ragtime & Blue Review
by James Manheim