Anyone looking for a good, solid one-disc package of Scott Joplin's piano rags will encounter a bewildering number of choices, ranging from volumes within complete sets to recordings by chamber ensembles or even his rags as arranged for orchestra. One would think that the new Naxos American Classics disc, its first of Joplin, would automatically be a strong contender in the category of direct, unfettered approaches to the work of Joplin as classical piano music. Unfortunately, Scott Joplin: Piano Rags doesn't deliver the goods, and the problem may lie in the choice of pianist, in this instance the otherwise indomitable Alexander Peskanov, noted elsewhere for his mastery of Brahms, Liszt, and his own (very interesting) piano music.
Peskanov approaches the music with care, taking all indicated repeats, adding rubato to stretch out transitions against Joplin's inflexible march beat, and making circumspect use of dynamics so that certain phrases die away and others jump forward. But Peskanov doesn't add much in the way of spark or excitement, nor do any of these recordings have the gentle sense of swing that is idiomatic to ragtime. Peskanov's interpretation of Bethena is too fussy, lingering over details to the extent that it obscures the form of the piece. Performances of Bethena normally clock in at about five and a half minutes; Peskanov takes nearly eight. There is an attempt to vary repeats in certain parts, but mostly these gestures come off like sloppy improvisations and are distracting to those who know Joplin's music well. Naxos' Scott Joplin: Piano Rags is like a glass of soda water that has lost its fizz; it's a shame that it's not better, but there are certainly a wealth of other, better recordings of Joplin out there.