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Glittering Technique

Music by Gershwin for piano and orchestra -
reviewed by

'... commendable drive and clarity.'

This is Gershwin - Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra. © 2008 Joshua Pierce

New York pianist Joshua Pierce has an impressively diverse and hugely acclaimed portfolio -- nonetheless as a Jacob Gershowitz (aka George Gershwin) performer, alongside the likes of Wild / Fiedler and Levant / Ormandy / Kostelanetz / Gould (see below), he doesn't quite cut it. Neither does the Brit / Slovak conductor-orchestra combo.

Listen -- Gershwin: Finale -- Marcato Moderato (Rhapsody in Blue)
(track 6, 0:45-1:28) © 2008 Joshua Pierce

This music must reflect the America of Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Bugs Moran, Charles Lindbergh, giddy 'flappers' and Prohibition (1919-1933). And MSR's release just fails to convey the dysfunctional zeitgeist stalking metropolitan America between the wars.

Jazz was all the rage. Kid Ory's Original Creole Jazz Band (from New Orleans) relocated in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland. The first shellac recordings by Bessie Smith, most famous of the 1920s blues singers became available. Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, and Fletcher Henderson were making a name for themselves while the New Orleans Rhythm Kings helped shape Chicago style jazz. Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers made a series of classic records for Victor. In 1923 Earl Hines moved to Chicago and in 1924 Whiteman commissioned Rhapsody in Blue, which was premièred by Whiteman's Orchestra.

Incandescent performances of the identical MSR (1920s-30s) Gershwin works for piano and orchestra are found on Bridge Records 9252. American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott (born 1963) is both canny and ferocious, and British conductor Justin Brown directs the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in performances alive with subtleties and idiomatic drive.

Best of all however, the supreme recording (American in Paris replaces the second Rhapsody) has an incomparable all-American lineup with 'legends in their own lifetime' Earl Wild, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops (BMG/RCA 1959, 1961). The performances are stellar and the recording, given its vintage, assoluta.

While this is still readily available it failed to be accorded a place within RCA's stunning 'Living Stereo' albums (1958) revived in the 1990s for a historic series of CDs devoted to triple-track stereophonic recordings.

Pianist, comedian and actor Oscar Levant (1906-1972) tears into the same programme plus three preludes; Rhapsody in Blue (RIB) with the Philadelphia and Ormandy, the Concerto in F has the NYPO and André Kostelanetz and the Second Rhapsody with I Got Rhythm Variations feature pianist, composer, conductor, and arranger Morton Gould (1913-1996) and his orchestra (CBS/Sony).

The multi-talented, mentally unstable Levant was a brilliant performer and very competent composer. He came from an Orthodox Jewish Russian family, growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The 1920s and 1930s raconteur Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him: 'There's absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can't fix.'

Reportedly 'His caustic yet witty quips, quotes, wisecracks, ripostes, and observations were often published and endlessly repeated, and at the height of his career he was the highest-paid concert pianist in America.'

Early in 1932 the Second Rhapsody (1931) was premièred by the BSO in Boston Symphony Hall with conductor Serge Koussevitsky (1874-1951) and Gershwin as soloist.

The composer felt its harmonic language was more advanced than that of RIB. To my mind it simply lacks the cohesion of Gershwin's earlier rhapsody and understandably remains the less popular.

On Telarc, Canadian pianist William Tritt (1951-1992) and conductor Erich Kunzel offer RIB, the Concerto and I Got Rhythm Variations : RIB (with Cincinnati Jazz Orchestra) -- the others with Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Alternatively Telarc's catalogue also reveals (a 1990 release), RIB with Eugene List, the Cincin' Symphony and Erich Kunzel (1935-2009).

While the fine Slovak players attempt to muster convincing Stateside pizzaz for MSR's Gershwin CD they repeatedly fall short of the target. And though Pierce cuts a dash he repeatedly messes around with the phrasing in his quest for the kosher Gershwin-esque idiom.

Listen -- Gershwin: Slowly (Rhapsody in Blue)
(track 4, 1:38-3:07) © 2008 Joshua Pierce

For all Pierce's glittering technique in RIB the composer's disarming yet brittle harmonic sequences and vital cross accents are periodically treated in casual rather than disciplined style.

In 1930, the year I Got Rhythm was published, blues and jazz singer, actress, Ethel Waters (1896-1977) recorded it for Columbia (2346-D).

In the same year Ethel Merman (1908-1984) was already engaged for Girl Crazy, with songs by George and Ira Gershwin (also starring the nineteen-year-old Ginger Rogers). Although third billed, Merman's version of I Got Rhythm in the show was a breakthrough, and by the late 1930s, she had become the first lady of Broadway musicals. Girl Crazy featured the most hit songs by George and Ira Gershwin in any one Broadway show.

If any I Got Rhythm can be counted definitive, I'd nominate Ella's (1917-1996) in Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959 -- four CDs remastered on Polygram). Recorded with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra it became the largest single recording project that Ella completed though she devoted an entire disc to the other of America's 'big five'; viz, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers and Irving Berlin.

Similar mastery however is evident with Bing Crosby in I Got Rhythm found on EMI's The Complete United Artists Sessions, on three CDs superbly produced in the UK (1974-1976) by multi-talented Yorkshireman, Ken Barnes.

In 1934 the song was later expanded as the theme in Gershwin's last concert piece, Variations on I Got Rhythm.

Though the original vocal composition is far preferable, here again Mr Wild, with coruscating swagger and panache, aided and abetted by Fiedler plus his Boston brass (sounding like a gangland Thompson submachine gun), tops the poll. The difference is exemplified at the finale, from 7'01" (MSR) or 6'31" (RCA).

The American / Slovak / British musicians seem most at ease with Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925). Here Pierce appears to recapture the form evident in his stunning disc combining Khachaturian's Concerto (D flat major), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; Prokofiev Concerto No 1 (D flat major), Slovenian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Shostakovitch Piano Concerto No 2 (F major) with Afro-American conductor, Paul Freeman.

Listen -- Gershwin: Allegro (Piano Concerto in F)
(track 4, 12:31-14:01) © 2008 Joshua Pierce

From Gershwin's arresting opening Allegro, Pierce, Trevor and the SRSO players manage the extended work with commendable drive and clarity.

Even so, Wild and the Bostonians still pip MSR at the post. It's not simply that their tempos are brisker (RCA knocks 3'55" off the new disc in the concerto). It's more a matter of chutzpah. Wild / Fiedler and Levant / Kostelanetz transmit a whiff of peril and rush of adrenalin. That's the way I like my symphonic Gershwin.

Copyright © 14 October 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand










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