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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

This is Gershwin
George GERSHWIN (1898 - 1937)
Second Rhapsody (1931) [14:19]
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [16:18]
Concerto in F (1925) [32:46]
I Got Rhythm Variations (1934) [8:37]
Joshua Pierce (piano)
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/Kirk Trevor
rec. (no venues given) 27 March 2001 (Rhapsody) 30-31 March 2005 (Concerto) 4-5 January 2007 (others)
MSR CLASSICS MS1265 [72:02]
Experience Classicsonline

In Show Business putting a name “above the title” is an old adage for the biggest star in the production having their name above that show’s name on all advertising. Given the Gershwin’s showbiz background perhaps the analogy is a valid one because Joshua Pierce puts his name “above the title”. Is he a big enough star, a charismatic enough performer, to be so listed? I must admit I find the title of this CD a little odd “This is Gershwin” - as opposed to something, which by implication, is not Gershwin! Or are we as listeners meant to listen to the disc and such are the insights and profundities therein that by the end of the experience all we can say is….. “ahh…. THIS is Gershwin”. I only labour this point because in the liner-notes Pierce writes:

"In preparing this recording of Gershwin's Concerto, I spent much time investigating and working from the facsimile edition conductor’s score. Drawing upon material I felt to be of vital importance and relevance with regard to the Charleston idiom heard throughout, I have endeavoured to provide further insight into several musical options Gershwin himself chose for his world premiere performance in 1926. Other material exists as well, notably the reprise of the main theme in the solo piano part set against the orchestra in octaves in the first and last movements. It is my wish that future pianists will have a chance to investigate the material contained in the facsimile edition. This particular recording of the Concerto is not intended to be a definitive version, but rather an historical document; a further re-examination - a more thorough and enthusiastic look at the rich, brilliant and important musical material that was performed by George Gershwin before the omissions of the current Campbell Watson version took hold with performers." - Joshua Pierce, November 2008.

That’s all very good and interesting and reads impressively but if you are setting a performance up as being essentially referential then a little more academic rigour and detail would not go amiss. Dedicated listeners may well have access to the published scores but probably not the facsimiles so a bit more detail please Mr Pierce. Further irritations with the liner-notes and the general issue of editions used; Rhapsody in Blue exists in three clear evolving editions and in his extended biography it is noted that Pierce “ ... gave the first televised performance in Eastern Europe of the complete and restored Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue.” However, nowhere in the notes with this disc does it say which edition he performs on this disc. And in any case again, what does complete and restored mean. I had access only to the published final version of Rhapsody in Blue which Ferde Grofé produced in 1942 to follow this recording and certainly it seems to follow this orchestration in the main although with some added instrumental details and extended piano writing in the cadenzas. Turning to the exemplary notes on Telarc CD-80166 (coupled as above but substituting Rialto Ripples for the 2nd Rhapsody) I find that Gershwin cut 44 bars from the original piece (only two of which involved the orchestra) in its Jazz Band incarnation - so where does Pierce get the scholarly justification for adding those bars back into a version that was only ever performed after they were cut? If there is musicological justification for this that is very interesting but we deserve to know exactly what it is. Two more minor examples of this disc’s penchant for inaccuracy and sweeping statements: Whiteman’s orchestrator is called Ferdé Grofe instead of Ferde Grofé and also it dismissively states “No one believes Paul Whiteman or cares anymore that he called himself the ‘king of Jazz’….”. To that I would call attention to a quote from Duke Ellington who in his autobiography wrote; “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity”. I have no personal axe to grind either way but I guess I’d take Ellington’s opinion over the writer of the liner-notes. 

None of the above would really matter a jot if the performances swept aside any doubts or questions one might have. Long gone are the days when it would be a recipe for stylistic disaster to hear an Eastern European Orchestra playing quintessentially American music. Generally the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra acquit themselves effectively and are recorded well but not in the demonstration bracket. The piano(s) used are not particularly beautiful suffering from a clangourous lower end which makes the initial entries in both the Concerto and the 2nd Rhapsody less than attractive. The disc was recorded over a six year period from 2001 to 2007 but there is no discernable difference to the ear. It is practical and neat to have all four of the Gershwin works for piano and orchestra on a single well-filled disc although logically I would have thought ordering the music chronologically would have made sense. You really can hear Gershwin developing as a composer and gaining confidence in his use of musical material and the handling of the orchestra. Instead the disc opens with the Second Rhapsody which turns out to be one of the disc’s more successful offerings. As becomes clear with repeated and extended listening Pierce prefers a choppy and syncopating rather than swinging style which suits the mechanistic style of this piece far better than the rest of the music on this disc. I should say that my observation is in direct contrast to the MSR website which draws attention to Pierce’s “super-smooth legato and intuitive understanding of Gershwin's sensational rhythms” - each to their own, I guess.

Here, as in the other performances the Slovak Brass principals show themselves not to be swaggeringly brash in the way they take their solos. A particular bugbear - made clear when following the Rhapsody in Blue score - Pierce does not seem to be inclined to follow dynamics much if at all so the bulk of the disc is performed from moderately loud to louder. This has the effect of making the playing hectoring and not playful; strident not powerful. The first time I listened the overall effect was quite positive but the more I compared performances the more it bore in on me a) what a superb group of original works these four pieces are and b) how many other performances do them far greater justice. Rhapsody in Blue is an astounding piece - again taken from the Telarc notes I like Gershwin’s quote, “Jazz, they said had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow … the rhapsody, as you see, began as a purpose, not a plan.” So, and this must imbue the spirit of a great performance, this is a piece born of Jazz and the essence of jazz is swing. As Duke Ellington so eloquently put it “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” and bluntly put this has not. Right from the uneasy and uneven clarinet glissando and through the many orchestral sections and piano solos nothing truly flows let alone swings. Listen to the famous “train tracks” sequence at about 3:24 into the piece - it is painfully literal, even the trumpets flutter-tongue crescendi go for little. Then there is a recurring issue with internal orchestral instrumental balances. The banjo, that most iconic of all jazz band instruments can barely be heard at all, clarinet counter-melodies count for little. But in contrast, a piccolo run - no piccolo or flute was scored in the original 1924 jazz band version - which is not in the 1942 version suddenly appears. By the time you have reached the final peroration your interest has waned and the much-vaunted authenticity counts for nothing.

Overall the Concerto in F fares better. After all it is a concerto influenced by jazz so the clipping of jazz phrasing is more valid. The opening with its dramatic percussion flourish tests the engineering and here it sounds very well. Indeed the whole orchestra in its 2005 incarnation sounds better. Still, Pierce chooses an over-articulated style. I have to say that his technique is well up to the demands Gershwin makes of it. I just don’t happen to like any of his musical choices. Left hand chordal accompaniments are often heavy and square. Given his reference to original sources there are moments when you are taken by surprise by an interpolated passage or phrase. However I seriously doubt this would be enough to attract any but the most ardent and completist of Gershwin collectors. The Blues slow movement suffers dreadfully from a lead trumpeter simply not at ease with the genre. Listen to the now 30 year old Leonard Slatkin/Jeffrey Siegel/St. Louis Orchestra version on Vox Box CD5007 for a stunning and moody performance. Indeed this would be my recommended set for all of the above with the rest of Gershwin’s orchestral works thrown in too. A quick browse on the web showed that it can still be obtained as a two-disc import for less than a tenner. Throughout Siegel offers Pierce an object lesson in blending technical mastery, jazz feel and musical wit. If the jury was in any way still out then Pierce’s first entry - after an introduction that sorely tests the combined strings of the orchestra - in the “I Got Rhythm” - Variations provides the coup de grâce. Gershwin characterised the first theme/variation as “simple”. Pierce plays it with an extraordinarily mannered musical hesitation during his first statement of the theme. Apart from any musical consideration - surely the initial statement of a theme should be simple - it is doubly bizarre when the title of the theme is “I Got Rhythm” because as played here he hasn’t! So overall a disc that promises much but one that fails to deliver when any of these promises are scrutinised either musically or textually. 

Only for Gershwin fans determined to have every possible edition of his music

Nick Barnard 



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