This is a very strange but oddly attractive program of music. Who would ever have thought of combining the music of Bach with that of Scott Joplin? Well, apparently William Appling did. And he explained that both Joplin's rags and the two Bach pieces here -- the Italian Concerto and the First Keyboard Partita -- were composed in very strict forms with very clearly discernible inner voices. But perhaps the real impetus for Appling to play these two composers is that in 1996 he suffered a 'surgical mishap' that rendered him unable to operate the piano's sustaining pedal and thus he began focusing almost exclusively, for his own enjoyment, on the keyboard music of Bach which does not necessarily require pedaling. He then found in his collection the long-forgotten Joplin 'Complete Piano Rags'and discovered that the same technical approach could be used with Joplin's music, too. Thus on this disc, in addition to the two Bach works, there are:
The Augustan Club Waltzes
The Ragtime Dance
Euphonic Sounds, and
Appling's playing is extremely clean and one can often hear 'air' between notes and phrases. Even if one didn't know about his injury one would quickly realize that he is not using the pedal. Additionally, his tempi are extremely deliberate -- read 'slow' -- and although this is at first a bit unsettling, one soon realizes that one is hearing EVERYTHING in a way that one might not at quicker tempi. It needs to be pointed out that the recent tradition for Joplin rags has been to play them fast in spite of the composer's very explicit instruction, repeated again and again in the scores, 'not too fast.' The more deliberate tempi restore what I have always felt was the proper feel for these works, one of dignity and lack of self-satirization. For that reason I really fell in love with Appling's interpretations. I realize there are those would prefer the Jo Ann Castle approach -- full-bore and hellbent for leather -- but I've always loathed her liberties and explicit disregard to the composer's intentions. You can make up your own mind about whether you'd like to experience Appling's more measured way with these treasures.
The Joplin music here includes some of his best work. I've always loved 'Gladiolus', 'The Ragtime Dance' and 'Magnetic', and have played them myself with great enjoyment. I was both amused and pleased at the restraint, the gentleness, of the scored 'stomps' in 'The Ragtime Dance'; they are so decorous as to be almost inaudible and this, rather than a full-blooded stomp, fits with Appling's approach. (I think, actually, he is rapping quietly on the piano case rather than stomping.)
The Bach is less memorable although it is certainly expert enough. Again, the main characteristic is the 'air' one can hear. Many players neglect the effect of silence in their playing, obviously something Appling did not. There is also some occasional subtle metric instability, not surprising when one realizes that absolutely no pedal is present to blur any irregularities.
This CD will not be for everyone, but anyone intrigued by what I've written will not, I suspect, be disappointed.
Postscript: William Appling (b. 1932) had a long and distinguished career primarily in the Cleveland area as a conductor, particularly of choral ensembles, as well as a pianist, educator and arranger. He died in 2008, not long after this recording was completed.