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George GERSHWIN (1896-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [16:41]
Piano Concerto in F (1925) [32:33]
Prelude No.2 [6:39]
Michel Camilo (piano)
Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona i Nacional de Catalunya/Ernest Martinez Izquierdo
rec. L'Auditori, Barcelona, Spain, 2-4 February 2005. DDD
TELARC CD-83611 [56:12]

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Michel Camilo is better known as a jazz pianist and composer of film scores than as a performer of “classical” music. It is this background that makes him such an interesting interpreter of Gershwin's more “serious” works. On this disc, he brings his considerable technique and improvisational sensibilities to bear in masterful and exciting readings.

The clarinettist who opens the Rhapsody in Blue is suitably bluesy and sets the tone for the orchestra's contribution – alive, individual and idiomatically jazzy. I would not have been at all surprised to be told that the orchestra supporting Camilo here was American, so much do these musicians seem at ease in jazz. The trumpet and clarinet licks are gorgeous.

To this great orchestral playing, Camilo adds a chimerical element. His pianism is electrifying, big-boned and resonant. He grips the solo lines and takes them, and the listener, all over the place. At one moment, you could be listening to a concerto by Liszt, so grand are the chords from the keyboard. Then, at about 2:50 in, there is a sudden change of tempo and a sniff of ragtime to the solo. At 9:25 ragtime appears again, and a minute later the same thematic material is given a honky-tonk twist. Camilo sounds as if he is making up bits of the piano part as he goes and this performance is none the worse for that. The notes on the cardboard sleeve point out that Camilo went back to Gershwin's original piano parts – the parts for his original two piano version – in preparing his piano part for this performance. How much of the improvisational feel of this performance can be attributed to this textual study on Camilo's part is impossible to say. In any case, this is virtuoso playing that would be pilloried in traditional concerto repertoire as wilful and disrespectful, but here it just feels so right. Camilo has you hanging on every note, because you simply do not know what he will do next. No matter how many recordings you have of this piece, this one will fascinate.

Camilo and friends apply a similarly high-energy approach to Gershwin's undervalued Piano Concerto, with the timpani, brass and strings emphatically jazzy, and with an edge, right from the get-go. This performance is all rhythm and drive and simply carries you along. Again, Camilo's big tone is fabulous and the orchestra is behind him all the way. As befits a concerto, Camilo sticks to the score, but nevertheless preserves the feel of spontaneity that characterises his Rhapsody in Blue.

The prelude makes for a bluesy encore - sensitively played, but a little anti-climactic after the concerto. Perhaps it would have been better as an interlude between the larger works. It is a useful bonus to have, though, and brings the playing time up enough to prevent complaints about short measure. Still, I would have loved to hear what these forces could do with Ravel's G Major concerto as an alternative filler!

I cannot figure out the recording balances on this disc. Played on some of my equipment, the sonic picture is perfect, but on other players the piano is very much in the spot-light and the orchestra sounds recessed. Turning up the volume seems to correct this imbalance, but you may need to consider your neighbours before employing this corrective strategy.

A winner.

Tim Perry 


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