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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
1. Rhapsody in Blue (original version) (1924) [16:07]
2. Songbook (1932) [19:06]
3. Piano Concerto in F (1925) [31:49]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
London Sinfonietta (1); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (2)/Simon Rattle.
rec. December 1986 and January 1987, CTS Studios, Wembley, London (1); December 1990, Abbey Road, London (2); October 1990, Butterworth Hall, University of Warwick (3). DDD
EMI CLASSICS ENCORE 5089952 [67:02]
Experience Classicsonline

Popular music in post-First World War America was dominated by the dance craze of ragtime. Ragtime had been present for several years, the province of black musicians and, therefore, deemed ‘dangerous’ by white society. It was not until Irving Berlin composed the hugely popular ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ in 1911, purging the form of any hint of ‘danger’ and eschewing any element of risk, that ragtime became acceptable.
This hijacking of Afro-American forms, from Stephen Foster to ragtime, would continue throughout the twentieth century; it would happen with jazz in the 1920s, rock and roll in the 1950s, funk in the 1970s, reggae in the 1980s and hip-hop/rap in the 1990s. For much of the following decade ragtime would be the pre-eminent form of dance music in America. However, in 1924 Louis Armstrong and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra visited New York for the first time; the same year saw Gershwin bring ‘jazz’ into the concert hall with his Rhapsody in Blue.
A response to a commission from Paul Whiteman to compose a ‘jazz concerto’ for his ‘Experiment in Modern Music’, Rhapsody in Blue was an immediate and enduring success. It has also become one of the most unfairly maligned and disfigured works in the repertoire, suffering more indignities than perhaps any other. Dr Alicia Zizzo has identified hundreds of details of articulation, tempo and style that were altered for the work’s original publication. Furthermore, over fifty bars of solo piano were eliminated between the first performance and the initial publication. The reinstatement of these passages solves certain structural problems; it also creates others. The central ‘love theme’ (actually a fox-trot) has, over the years, become so slow and sentimental that an exact doubling of tempo for the second half of each phrase has become necessary.
It is hard to think of any other work by a major composer that has been treated to such a blatant disregard for the author’s intentions. True, the work is not without flaws; the structure has oft been criticized and the content is a curious blend of ragtime, stride, romantic virtuosity and impressionism. Yet the piece, when played as originally written, has an energy and exuberance that is very much of its time, reflecting the unparalleled optimism and liberalism of 1920s America, a nation discovering its own voice across all of the arts (not to mention the joys of sex, smoking and greatly increased alcohol consumption). Rhapsody in Blue is no more a romantic concerto that it is real jazz; taken at face value it is simply great entertainment.
In this performance, originating from the Rattle’s cracking 1987 Jazz Album (currently available on Classics For Pleasure 5218602), Ferde Grofé’s original orchestration for the Whiteman Band is used. The differences between this and the more popular revision for symphony orchestra are immediately obvious, with upfront saxophones replacing syrupy strings. It’s a risky strategy given that Grofé was writing for specific, and unique, talents; Several modern performances of this original version begin to sound more like Weill than Gershwin. Not so here. Rattle’s London Sinfonietta make perhaps the most convincing argument that I have yet to hear for performing the electrifying original. Electrifying it certainly is, and not simply due to some daringly helter-skelter tempi.
Rattle does not re-instate any of the extra material that Zizzo has unearthed; however, he does take the original score at its word, with several interesting effects. There are four bars of tutti that remain in the performance materials that inexplicably disappeared from every published edition; Rattle plays them. The climactic ascent, usually marked by a huge broadening of tempo is here played as written in the original score, beginning with a slight drop in tempo and then accelerating towards the top of the scale.
In amongst all this vim and vigour, it requires a pianist of the musicality and understanding of Peter Donohoe. He plays with distinction and a sense of wit without ‘hamming’ it. I would not at all be surprised if Rattle and Donohoe had listened to the two (abridged) recordings that the composer made with the Whiteman Band where it is clear that all the mad-cap antics were provided by the band whilst Gershwin played it straight.
In the 1945 movie Rhapsody in Blue (a ‘biopic’ of Gershwin which in time honoured tradition was a great deal more fiction than fact) a performance of the last movement of the Concerto in F is interrupted after the climactic tam-tam stroke so that the conductor can announce to the audience that the composer has died. Said conductor then turns back to the orchestra and recommences the performance. It is a horribly melodramatic scene, one which unintentionally highlights one of Gershwin’s weakest compositional moments. The tam-tam stroke is in itself and interruption to the flow of the music; Gershwin has lost his way and so needs a dramatic gesture in order to return to earlier material for the coda.
During the opening tutti of the present performance I feared that Rattle would distort the flow of the music to near incoherence. True, there are times where his rallentandi beggar belief but, on the whole, I found this one of the most satisfying accounts of the work on disc. Rattle has often been accused of self-consciously ‘cherry-picking’ details in his performances and that is certainly in evidence here. Yet, more importantly, he frequently displays his extraordinary ability to balance textures to reveal inner lines that actually contribute to, rather than detract from, the musical argument. And then there is his sense of rhythm; anyone who has heard his famous recording of Porgy and Bess will know what vitality he brings to that score through the understanding that - in this repertoire at least - speed does not necessarily equal excitement. Rattle allows Gershwin’s Charleston rhythms in the first movement enough time to make their effect felt.
The CBSO really do step up to the mark here. The orchestration sounds so fresh, articulation in the quicker moments the equal of any on record. Some may miss a certain degree of brashness to the playing and yet that is merely a side effect of the level of detail that Rattle unearths. Special notice should be given to Alan Whitehead’s trumpet solo in the second movement; it was, I believe, his CBSO swansong in this very work with the exact same forces that I witnessed in a remarkable all-Gershwin programme at Symphony Hall in the mid-1990s. The immensely touching speech that Rattle gave after the performance was a fitting testament to the relationship between conductor and orchestra at that time.
In the end, though, any performance of this work must have at its heart a convincing exponent of the solo piano part. Donohoe is exceptional. Once again, there is a level of subtlety and insight on display which is rarely given to this work but of which it completely deserves. Anyone wanting the dash and devil-may-care attitude of Earl Wild or Wayne Marshall will want to look elsewhere and yet, after repeated listening, I found myself more and more mesmerised by the Rattle/Donohoe partnership.
Many of the same qualities can be found in Donohoe’s performance of the Songbook. Essentially a money-spinning endeavour on Gershwin’s part (although, by 1932 one wonders why the sensationally successful composer felt the need to supplement his income further), the eighteen arrangements of his most popular songs are remarkably well-crafted and (unsurprisingly) idiomatic. They are also very short. When Ella Fitzgerald came to record her own ‘Gershwin Songbook’, she realised that she was going to have to learn all of the verses from scratch; in their transition from show tunes to jazz standard the verses had slipped into oblivion. Well, Gershwin appears to have set the precedent with his arrangements here, abandoning the verses altogether. Yes, the refrains feature some of the finest and most memorable tunes, but the composer’s genius was frequently most evident in the verses. One also wonders if, had Gershwin lived a few years longer, he may have added a few more numbers. Having been published in 1932, the set pre-dates all of his Hollywood work, arguably the most exquisite period of his compositional career. Nevertheless, you’d be hard pushed to forget any of the music presented here, particularly when played with such virtuosity and élan. Donohoe avoids the usual pitfalls of a ‘classical’ pianist interpreting ‘popular’ music and gives performances that are both exceptionally musical and utterly idiomatic.
All in all this is a fantastic bargain featuring all-round exceptional performances, beautifully recorded. With an invaluable Rhapsody and an interesting Concerto it is self-recommending.

Owen E Walton


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