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Buywell Just Classical

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937) arr. Robert Russell Bennett
Porgy and Bess – A Symphonic Picture (1941-1942) [23:55]
Ferde GROFÉ (1892-1972)
Grand Canyon Suite (1931) [36:05]
Mississippi Suite (1924) [13:01]*
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti; Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson*
rec. United Artists' Auditorium, Detroit, USA, October 1982; Eastman Theatre, University of Rochester, New York, USA, May 1958*. DDD/ADD*
Experience Classicsonline

This disc is a must-have. Antal Doráti was 76 years old when he made his Gershwin and Grofé record for Decca, but these performances have all the cocky swagger of youth. They are also stunningly well recorded and played to the nines by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, of which Doráti had been music director for about five years by the time these tracks were recorded.

Robert Russell Bennett's arrangement of material from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is probably the best known orchestral work drawn from Gershwin's opera, and is arguably more effective than the composer's own suite, Catfish Row. It was commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony at the behest of its then chief conductor, Fritz Reiner, and has been a popular part of the repertory ever since. 

Russell Bennett's scoring paints a Symphonic Picture in lush, vibrant colours. He weaves the themes of the opera together to suit the dramatic arc of his synthesis rather than following strictly the order in which they appear on stage.

This Detroit performance is riveting from first note to last: from the warmth of the surging unison strings singing out Bess, You is My Woman Now, to the slight sneer in the brass commentary on It Ain't Necessarily So; from the bluesy trumpet writing to the syncopated swing of I'm On My Way at the close even as a lone trumpet interjects with I Got Plenty of Nothin'. This performance is idiomatic, energetic and brilliantly recorded in early Decca digital sound. 

The brilliance of the recorded sound is also very much in evidence in the famous Cloudburst that concludes Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite. This music is painted in primary colours, and demands committed execution and vivid sound to make an impact. It receives both here. The deft Detroit percussion and brass cut through the swell of strings and the woodwind squall to spectacular effect. The earlier movements of Grofé's tuneful, Broadway-influenced score are equally well served. Cooing French horns evoke sunrise and in the first movement of the suite and sunset in the fourth. Doráti's dynamic control gives the second movement, The Painted Desert, an air of movie mystery and the depiction of a clip-clopping, hee-hawing donkey carrying a singing cowboy in the central third movement, On the Trail, is priceless. 

Just having Doráti's old record back in circulation, let alone at this bargain basement price point would be cause enough for rejoicing. Australian Eloquence, however, is determined to ice the cake. Originally coupled with his own recording of the Grand Canyon Suite, Howard Hanson's recording of Grofé's Mississippi Suite with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra comes from Doráti's old label, Mercury, which is now also part of the Universal Classics family. Hanson, a fine composer in his own right, is a deft colourist in these lighter scores and while his Grand Canyon must yield to Doráti's, at the very least in terms of its sound quality, his Mississippi Suite is a welcome filler here. 

The Mississippi Suite is a slighter work than the Grand Canyon Suite, but is very enjoyable when played with such panache, even if the 1958 stereo is showing its age. The first and third movements feature writing of limpid beauty, and the finale has a lively party atmosphere, even if it is a touch too relaxed in this performance. The second movement is the best: a bright-eyed character sketch of Huckleberry Finn, flecked with colours from the tone poems of Dukas and Richard Strauss. 

Helpful liner-notes from Christopher Palmer and Harold Lawrence (on the Mississippi Suite) complete a very attractive issue.

Tim Perry


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