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.,
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.