George Gershwin: Complete Music for Piano & Orchestra [Rhapsody in Blue, Second rhapsody, I Got Rhythm Variations, Piano Concerto in F]
Anne-Marie McDermott, piano; Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Justin Brown, conductor
Bridge Records BRIDGE 9252
Rhapsody in Blue must be one of the most important compositions both in Twentieth Century ‘Classical’ Music and in early Jazz. I say this because its immediate and lasting appeal surely draws a great number of young listeners into exploring these genres more fully. This was certainly true in my case some 35 years ago.
Even people who go no further in following these inquisitive inclinations tend to maintain a fondness for the piece and harbour at least one version in their record collections. They can even expound knowledgeably and extensively on the subject of the contemporary music of the 1920s and 30s on the strength of their familiarity with George Gershwin.
In the same spirit, although I claim no specialism in either the composer or the period, I feel I identify with the work enough to give a fair criticism of this new interpretation and the pieces accompanying it. A man-in-the-street’s review, if you like.
I suppose I’d better start by laying my cards on the table and say that this is probably the best interpretation I’ve ever heard. The reasons for this bold statement somewhat surprise me – I find myself voicing phrases and opinions that don’t come easily or often from my way of listening and analysing. So please bear with me, while I try and express them in a coherent manner, if somewhat stream-of-consciousness stylee!
Most versions of this work seem to me to play up the glamour of the jazz age – being loud, brash glitzy …. know what I mean? This one is quite different. It’s comparatively understated, subdued, not dull – more like a black and white print of a film we’re used to seeing in colour. And this all gives the impression that, just maybe, this could be the modern authoritative version. It could be more authentic than the rest, getting down to the nitty-gritty flesh-and-bones of dilettante life in the twenties rather than skimming the superficiality of celebrity hi-life for the admiration and entertainment of the down-trodden masses. On this record, I think there’s more depth of feeling, which ranges from the ecstatic to the deeply depressed, without the excessive the freneticism and melodrama of many other recordings. I’d rather like to know what Gershwin himself would have to say on the subject.
I cannot say whether I’ve ever heard Second Rhapsody before or not. It’s certainly rings no bells for me. It’s very much in the same vein as R-in-B but also very much ‘second’ in quality, lacking the immediately likeable drama or easy ebb and flow of its big brother while retaining much of the interesting variety of expressive and imaginative picture painting. I’m not surprised it’s nowhere nearly as well known. Nevertheless, the piece is covered in the same stylish manner as the major work by the pianist and, particularly, the orchestra – they do their best with what is clearly an inferior composition [in terms of Gershwin, I mean – most of us would have been proud to have written it!]. Perhaps a certain amount of repeated exposure will improve my opinion of this one.
I Got Rhythm Variations does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s competent enough, I suppose, but to me it sounds rather dated and somewhat uninteresting [a bit like a second rate Aaron Copeland composition] – it would work well enough as the soundtrack to a fantasy sequence in a period film, I think. Perhaps Keith Jarrett or Herbie Hancock might have done something more relevant to the twenty-first century with it, but all-in-all I think I prefer to hear the basic song.
Piano Concerto in F is well executed with some very fine playing by Ms McDermott. Although it never reaches the heights attained by Rhapsody in Blue, this is an admirable composition and clearly a model set for so much music in succeeding decades. I’m thinking of The Warsaw Concerto, The Dream of Alwyn and similar film-related pieces very much associated with the spirit of the age. Again I think this is the ‘black-and-white’ version and as such is very authentic and can therefore be viewed as a paradigm performance.
So, in conclusion, I’d say this is an important recording especially for the exemplary interpretations of Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto and well worth obtaining. UK collectors may like to know that Bridge Records have recently signed a distribution agreement with Naxos, so you should find this and other Bridge releases very much easier to obtain in good record shops.