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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
An American in Paris (1928)* [18:21]
Rhapsody in Blue (original version, orch. Ferde Grofé) (1924)** [16:07]
Catfish Row (suite from Porgy and Bess) (1935)*
Lullaby (1919)* [7:28]
Cuban Overture (1932)+ [10:39]
*Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin; ** Peter Donohoe (piano); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle; +London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. Powell Hall, St Louis, Missouri, 25. August 1987. DDD*; CTS Studios Wembley, London, 30 December 1986 and 2 January 1987. DDD**; Abbey Road Studios, London, 1-2 July 1980. ADD+.
Experience Classicsonline

This is one of a new EMI series of reissues, entitled American Classics. From the first batch, alongside this Gershwin CD, I received a Leonard Bernstein compilation (St Louis SO/Slatkin, CBSO/Paavo Järvi and London Sinfonietta/Rattle (2066262). The other composers in the series are Adams (2066272), Barber (2066252), Carter (2066292), Copland (2066342), Ives (2066312), Reich and Glass (2066242), Schuman and Bernstein (2066112) and Virgil Thomson (2066122). Four of these are advertised on the inside back cover of the booklet, with a reminder that they are available as downloads. My experience with EMI downloads, however, is that they are rarely cheaper than buying the equivalent mid-price CD – like Universal’s classicsandjazz website, they seem to have a one-price-fits-all policy – and their download technology appears to have a considerable number of pitfalls for Windows Vista users. The artistic line-ups for these recordings are all virtually self-recommending, if not always quite in the very top flight. 

The opening track of this CD, Leonard Slatkin’s account of An American in Paris, is one example where there are more idiomatic versions – Bernstein with the NYPO on mid-price Sony to name but one competitor who hits the spot slightly more accurately (82876787682, with equally fine versions of the Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto). JW described Bernstein’s version on a 10-CD ‘Original Jacket’ collection as self-definingly eloquent – see review. Slatkin’s slight lack of pace at the beginning – jaunty but not quite jaunty enough, and the car horns not quite raucous enough to begin with – denies his version that accolade, good as it becomes by the blowsy end of the work. EMI have a strong competitor in their own mid-price stable, from the LSO and André Previn, coupling the Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto (5668912). 

The Donohoe/Rattle version of the Rhapsody is a different matter. This version appeared on Musicweb’s list of selected recordings for the 1998 Gershwin centenary, alongside the Howard Shelley/Yan Pascal Tortelier account (CHAN9092 – also available from Chandos’s theclassicalshop as mp3 and lossless downloads); both versions remain high on any list of recommendations. While Bernstein again remains a strong competitor – JW in the review to which I have already referred used such epithets as ‘stupendous’; he has the advantage, of course, of being both soloist and conductor – I think Donohoe and Rattle run him pretty close: for a pair of Brits, they swing into the American mood perfectly. They don’t quite displace my copy of the Bernstein recording, however, in one of its multiple earlier lives on CBS and Sony. 

Prospective purchasers should, however, be aware that Donohoe/Rattle Rhapsody, coupled with the Piano Concerto and Songbook, a preferable coupling for many, remains available more cheaply on EMI’s own Encore budget-price label (5 08995 2 at around £6). The earlier Wayne Marshall; LPO/Rattle version on Encore seems to have been deleted. If you go for the Encore version, don’t forget that the label also offers one of the memorable Menuhin/Grappelli joint ventures – arrangements of Gershwin’s Fascinatin’ Rhythm, etc., on 5850812.

Whether this reissue stands or falls will depend for most readers on these first two pieces and how they are coupled. That’s not to say that Catfish Row isn’t very attractive music. I actually slightly prefer Richard Rodney Russell’s symphonic suite from Porgy and Bess to the composer’s own 5-section arrangement, written when the original production flopped, and revived in this orchestral form in the 1950s, but there isn’t a great deal in it, especially when Slatkin redeems my earlier reservations about American by turning in an excellent performance, apparently recorded on the same day as that earlier track – perhaps he and the St Louis SO just needed time to warm up: no complaints this time about the liveliness of the opening item, depicting Catfish Row itself (track 3). ‘Porgy Sings’ (track 4), opening with an arrangement of I got plenty of nuthin’, really swings in this version. When the music segues into Bess, you is my woman, the contrast of mood is beautifully handled. The full force of the Hurricane (tr.6) is well captured. 

In the Lullaby, too, originally written for string quartet in 1919, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and Slatkin acquit themselves well. 

André Previn’s version of the Cuban Overture rounds off a CD for which there are more plus points than minuses. The LSO capture the Latin-American rhythms of this music as expertly as if they were performing for Edmundo Ros. The quality of the performances of these last three works means that I shall be keeping this CD alongside Bernstein’s American and Rhapsody, thus breaking my self-imposed rule of not having more than one version of a piece, though I’m fast running out of room to put it all. 

The recordings are all very good, even the ADD final track. The booklet contains short but informative notes – why waste half a page, though, with a platitudinous overview of American music, common to all the CDs in the series. The booklet which accompanies the Chandos Rhapsody in Blue is worth downloading – generously made available to all-comers to their website. 

All in all, if the couplings appeal – and it is difficult to get everything of Gershwin that you want without some duplications – and considering that I’ve probably over-stated my reservations about the one item, this reissue deserves to sell well, as it probably will. Its component parts may have been around the block several times, but they’re none the worse for that. The days when Gershwin was so little known in the UK that one commentator referred to the lyricist of his songs as “his lovely sister Ira” are, thankfully, long gone.

Brian Wilson



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