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Decca Phase 4
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
rec. December 1986 and January 1987, CTS Studios, Wembley, London (1); December
1990, Abbey Road, London (2); October 1990, Butterworth Hall, University of Warwick
ENCORE 5089952 [67:02]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
in all this is a fantastic bargain featuring all-round
exceptional performances, beautifully recorded. With an
invaluable Rhapsody and an interesting Concerto it
Owen E Walton
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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