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Download: Classicsonline

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Transcriptions for Clarinet and String Orchestra
Porgy and Bess, suite arr. Franck Villard [44:12]
Piano Concerto in F: II. Andante con moto, arr. Franck Villard [7:03]
An American in Paris, excerpt arr. Franck Villard [5:33]
Three Preludes, arr. Franck Villard [7:03]
Michel Lethiec (clarinet)
Sinfonia Finlandia/Patrick Gallois
rec. 22-27 October, 2007, Laukaa Church, Laukaa, Finland
Experience Classicsonline

Ah, the clarinet! George Gershwin, the jazz genius who in the 1920s decided to put a swinging stamp on western classical music, recognized the potential of the clarinet at a time when most ragtime and novelty numbers starred the piano. He kicked off the Rhapsody in Blue with a now-legendary clarinet glissando and peppered in three or four more great solos later on in the work. Gershwin enthusiasts should seek out a recording from New Orleans of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing its own version of the classic Gershwin song “Summertime” – featuring a simply unbelievable clarinet solo by Dr. Michael White.

Now composer and opera conductor Franck Villard has arranged some choice Gershwin works for the combination of clarinet and string orchestra. And the program sounds like a Greatest Hits album: we have the bluesy slow movement from the Piano Concerto, a choice five-minute excerpt from An American in Paris, and the Three Preludes (originally for piano solo). Rounding out the album is a massive suite extracted from the opera Porgy and Bess. 

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for the music at hand is not matched by a similar love for these arrangements and performances. Too frequently the string orchestra’s sonority just cannot capture the full, rich sound of Gershwin’s orchestrations, and too often the solo clarinet part sounds awkward or unidiomatic. Even more unfortunately, clarinetist Michel Lethiec’s tone is never smooth and mellow when he is given the chance to be squawky and shrill instead. 

The works that come off best are the shorter pieces. The brief extract from An American in Paris is very well-chosen indeed, and here clarinetist Michel Lethiec really makes the most of the gorgeous melody he is given (played by the trumpet in the original version). That said, I could imagine more wit and jazzy flair in the playing, and Lethiec’s near-total aversion to vibrato occasionally grates on the nerves. In jazz, clarinet players are unafraid to deploy vibrato, taboo though it may be for the more classically-minded. Listen to the opening minute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Rhapsody in Blue, for instance (James Levine conducts), or nearly any recording of American jazz musicians, such as the aforementioned Dr. Michael White or the legends Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Lethiec gives in sometimes, but too often his sustained notes without vibrato become difficult for my ears to take. 

The best performance, and best transcription, on the disc is also the last: an arrangement of the Three Preludes for solo piano. Much to my surprise, these arrangements really work, and the performance – especially the double bass playing with relish in the odd-numbered preludes – is quite enjoyable. I could imagine a slightly more sensitive rendition of the clarinet line in the gorgeous second prelude, and the engineers need not have captured the instrument’s clicking sounds, but this is nevertheless an atmospheric performance. Also worth noting is the bluesy slow movement to the Piano Concerto, which fares very well here. 

Unfortunately the big item on the menu – a forty-five minute suite extracted from Porgy and Bess – is not as impressive. Villard, in writing this arrangement, seems to have recognized that much of the opera is not at all suited to the medium of clarinet and string orchestra, and as a result, the hurricane scenes are entirely gone, “I got plenty of nothin’” and “It ain’t necessarily so” only make brief appearances, some material from early on is recycled near the end to hide the absence of forward development, and, most disappointingly, “I’m on my way,” the rousing finale of the opera, is nowhere to be found. But when I complain that some of my favorite parts of the opera are missing, my grumble is in much the same spirit as the old joke, “The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small.” The music here isn’t terrible, and the portion is large – forty-five minutes – but the whole thing is very unsatisfying. 

In the initial numbers, particularly “Jasbo Brown’s Blues,” the orchestra actually plays with more idiomatic, jazzy expression than does Lethiec. He has his moments later, but he also plays with inappropriate bravado in the mournful funeral chant “Gone, gone, gone.”. 

Maybe the best way of expressing my feelings toward this album is to say that listening to it should have been fun, but was not. I had hoped to kick back and enjoy a light, virtuosic spin on Gershwin favorites performed with a smile. Instead playing this album multiple times for review purposes felt a little like a chore. If Michel Lethiec was more in-tune with the jazz idiom and more willing to play with vibrato, and if he had a deeper, richer clarinet tone, perhaps this would have been a cheerier album - and a cheerier review. The playing of the Finnish orchestra, under Patrick Gallois, is generally excellent, barring a few intonation problems in Porgy and Bess. 

As a part of the Naxos Digital imprint, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc. If you are still interested in hearing some of the better portions of this album, I recommend you choose to download the tracks from the Piano Concerto and Three Preludes individually. If you just want to hear a great Gershwin tune given an unquestionably idiomatic and indeed mesmerizing performance on the clarinet, pick up the Preservation Hall Jazz Band album Songs of New Orleans, and listen to Dr. Michael White’s rendition of “Summertime.” White’s interpretation of this standard is so astonishing, or perhaps a better word is miraculous, that I daresay you will never listen to a clarinet the same way again.

Brian Reinhart




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