In the mid-to-late 20th century there were four organists of worldwide repute who so dominated their field that they impressed both serious critics and the general public: Helmut Walcha, Marie-Claire Alain, Virgil Fox and E. Power Biggs. The latter two, by virtue of living and working in America, came in for the lion’s share of publicity, but in international circles it’s quite possible that Walcha and Alain overshadowed the flamboyant Fox, who never subscribed to the belief that Baroque music should be played on Baroque organs. For that matter, neither did Alain until late in her life, whereas Walcha always did so and Biggs began the practice after a 1954 European tour on which he played Bach on the small period organs of the composer’s time. We shall get into a discussion of the rightness or wrongness of this practice in a later blog post, but for the nonce let us ascribe to Biggs his belief in musical purity.
Which brings us to two of his strangest albums: Columbia LPs made in 1973 and 1974 of the music of Scott Joplin, played on the pedal harpsichord. Just think about that for a moment and let it sink in. Here is prim, proper, British-born E. Power Biggs, a dominant figure in the organ world, suddenly letting his hair down to play ragtime—and doing so on an instrument he wasn’t known for. From a marketing perspective, the project made sense at the time. After Joshua Rifkin’s surprisingly successful LPs of Joplin rags on Nonesuch came out, America went ragtime crazy. Other musicians jumped on the Joplin bandwagon, among them pianist William Bolcom, conductor Gunther Schuller who recorded orchestral arrangements of his rags (The Red Back Book, Angel Records) and led live performances (and a DG recording) of Joplin’s ragtime opera Treemonisha, and last but not least, film musician Marvin Hamlisch, who adapted a clutch of Joplin rags for the soundtrack to the wildly popular film, The Sting (possibly the only time in Hollywood history that an Oscar was given for “Best Original Film Score” to a man who simply arranged someone else’s music).
But insofar as an artist like Biggs was concerned, popularity wasn’t necessarily a motivating factor. At the time he recorded the first of these two albums, Biggs was 67 years old and had never been involved in anything resembling popular music before. He wasn’t an entertainer, he was an artist. There was no real reason for him to accept the proposal. In addition, I don’t think he ever made another record on the pedal harpsichord, the instrument of choice for this project because of its “banjo-like” qualities (according to the liner notes). He certainly had every right to tell Columbia Records to go stuff it, or at least find another musician to do it—yet he accepted. Why? I think the answer lies in the extraordinarily high quality of the performances. He really liked this music. He played it as if he loved every strain, every phrase, every bar of it. He not only revels in the bounce of the syncopation—something I wouldn’t have believed him capable of—but also lavishes extraordinary care on each and every piece. As an organist he was intimately familiar with the way music for his instrument was “layered,” how the bass line played against the treble and how the inner voices were colored to provide an aural contrast to each other. Biggs plays one of Joplin’s weakest pieces, the innocuous Binks’ Waltz, as if it were a nocturne by Chopin, with a surprising amount of rubato and delicate shading, and in the more extroverted pieces he constantly reminds the listener that this is really music, that the A-B-A-C formula used by Joplin is not trite so long as the musical inspiration is high.
As a result, the 20 performances Biggs recorded over a two-year period remain fascinating and valuable. Yes, I would have liked to have heard what Fox could do with this music—his natural effusion as an artist seems perfect for ragtime—but the more musically sensitive Biggs is more than simply adequate. He is stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever heard more attractive performances of Joplin anywhere, not even in the later (and fine in its own way) harpsichord album of Joplin recorded by Elisabeth Chojnacka for the Valois label, and I highly recommend that you explore them for yourself.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley