Like many music lovers of a certain age, pianist Marc-André Hamelin was introduced to ragtime by pianist Joshua Rifkin’s recording of Scott Joplin rags, which his father bought when Hamelin was young. Released in 1970, Rifkin’s recording was credited with sparking a revival of interest in ragtime. (The resurgence got an extra kick a few years later with the release of the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film “The Sting” and its ragtime-infused soundtrack.)
Hamelin started learning some of the rags from a popular Dover collection of Joplin’s piano works. A few years later, he came across “Heliotrope Bouquet,” an LP featuring the American composer William Bolcom at the piano. It featured a few Joplin rags, as well as pieces by Joseph Lamb and James Scott, who together made up the “big three” of ragtime. But it also featured a couple of rags that Bolcom himself had written, an indication that the form was of more than just historical importance. Hamelin was particularly fascinated because the other Bolcom piano music he’d looked at seemed fearsomely complex and avant-garde.
“When I got ‘Heliotrope Bouquet,’ I thought, could this possibly be the same guy?” Hamelin said during a recent phone interview. Bolcom would go on to write more than two dozen rags, all grounded in the familiar paradigm, yet also showing how much expressive and harmonic invention was possible in a format whose popularity had peaked many decades before.
This whole line of discovery reached a sort of culmination recently, when Hamelin released the two-CD set “William Bolcom: The Complete Rags” (Hyperion). The recording brings together three essential aspects of Hamelin’s artistry: matchless instrumental technique, a drive to uncover lesser-known parts of the vast piano repertoire, and an allergy to doing things halfway. The result is both an introduction to one corner of an essential American composer’s work and, seemingly, the final word on it, so convincing are the performances.
So it’s striking, even odd, to hear the pianist — who appears at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Saturday with the Viano String Quartet — say that he’s not sure exactly why he decided to undertake the project at all.
“I don’t know quite what decided me to record all of the rags,” Hamelin said by phone from Prague, where he was playing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F with the Czech Philharmonic under Keith Lockhart. “Part of the impulse might have stemmed from the fact that generally in Europe, and even in the UK, these rags are just not very well known, while he’s really one of our major figures. So I thought I’d be doing a kind of service recording. I think that for many people it’s going to be a very, very pleasant discovery.”
The idea of “service” is important to understanding Hamelin’s approach to recording. Unlike many musicians, he sees it as almost wholly separate from his concert activities. He has only played a few of Bolcom’s rags in concert, and learned the set only to set them down for posterity in the studio.
“I want to expand the awareness of the repertoire, both for listeners and for the pianists who are going to play these pieces,” he explained. “I try to choose what I believe in but which has been left in the dust somehow. So it doesn’t matter if I don’t play these things in concert necessarily. I want to leave something, and I want to make a little bit of a dent in people’s appreciation.”
As for what makes a compelling concert program, Hamelin said that while it can be constructed any number of ways, he generally holds to a model that combines familiar and unfamiliar works, “because I think the unusual piece has a better chance of being understood or appreciated if it’s not surrounded by other less-often heard things.” Sometimes, the unfamiliar work will be one of Hamelin’s own compositions, as at the Rockport performance (“Nowhere Fast,” a piece for piano quintet) and, later in the summer, at a Newport Classical performance with cellist Johannes Moser (Four Perspectives for cello and piano).
Hamelin avers that he doesn’t “push his music compulsively. I am not narcissistic to the point of pushing my own music on people.” He may be being too modest: His website contains a sampling of piano compositions that show wit, invention, and the kind of virtuoso technique for which he has become so well-known. As for “Nowhere Fast,” it’s a work of hectic energy that begins with the string quartet striding confidently forward in C major before being knocked off-kilter by dissonant exclamations from the piano. The music loses its optimistic feel, and its energy dissipates into empty, frantic motion.
“It starts with a smiling, and then the smile disappears,” the composer suggested.
Given Hamelin’s penchant for matching the new with the more familiar, it’s fitting that “Nowhere Fast” will share the Rockport program with Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2, a piece in which the smiles are both plentiful and long-lasting. “Just a joy to play from start to finish,” he said.
Viano String Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin
Presented by Rockport Chamber Music Festival. At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport. June 25, 5 p.m. Tickets: $49-69. 978-546-7391, www.rockportmusic.org/marc-andre-viano/