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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Simon Rattle – American Music
see end of review details
rec. 1986-1999
EMI CLASSICS 215014 2 [7 CDs: 503:56]

Experience Classicsonline

EMI is Rattling, a process by which the company encloses a corpus of his recordings in handy boxes at tempting prices. This one will appeal. Despite all the carping about his custodianship of the central Austro-German repertoire I don’t think there are many complaints about his idiomatic handling of American music; or if there are they tend to be peripheral and not systemic. I’ve always found him impressive here.

These are all well known performances so my brief will be to highlight things I especially liked, liked re-acquainting myself with, or perhaps found less successful. We’ll take it disc by disc.

Rattle’s Ellington (and Billy Strayhorn) album takes Luther Henderson arrangements laced with some outstanding jazz soloists. Sometimes these arrangements are rather utilitarian – Take the ‘A’ Train has the soloists topped and tailed by the CBSO. And then again sometimes they are overblown, as in Sophisticated Lady. Lena Horne, frail but personable, laid down her contributions in New York – her You’re the One is touching, still, for all that. Henderson orchestrated Harlem for Ellington back in 1950. It’s a work that has always struck me as over-extended. Still the performance is good within its bounds. Bobby Watson takes on Johnny Hodges in Isfahan. Gerri Allen shows her chops in Ad Lib on Nippon – less percussive than Duke but subtle. It Don’t Mean a Thing (or, as here, That Doo-wah Thing) is an exercise here in fatuous Cop show soundtrackery. Regina Carter, strangely weak, appears on Come Sunday. Henderson infiltrates some Delian harmonies into the arrangement of Solitude (or Solitude in Transbluecency). Clark Terry is on hand for some sassy muggles on Things Ain’t – praise be to Clark.

The disc devoted to John Adams, with whom Rattle was strongly identified for a while, is a powerfully enticing one, though not without organisational blemish. Naturally there are the hot shot favourites - Chairman, Tromba, Short Ride – but these are balanced by the Harmonielehre in a performance of revelatory strength. Rattle and the CBSO are especially compelling in its second movement in which the element of nocturnal darkening and twisting is brought out with exceptional cogency. The rest of the disc is a hodge podge. A bit of Ives, the opening five minutes of Rhapsody in Blue, the Mambo from West Side Story and some Carter. It’s unsatisfactory and, actually, just a bit pointless.

As much as Adams, Rattle has managed to get close to the Bernstein muse. His Wonderful Town performance dominates disc two, with its all-star cast and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group on hand to deliver the goods. Maybe there’s just too much of a regimented feel to the orchestra’s swing for sheer liberative pleasure but the overall results are strongly in favour of the ensemble performance. Kim Criswell is, to use that word again, sassy (One hundred easy ways to lose a man) and Thomas Hampson as Baker proves formidably conversant with the modus operandus. His A quiet girl is warmly and softly done, with no hint of the histrionically operatic – he has a demotic honesty in his delivery. Crowd scenes are well judged spatially – try Act II’s Swing! scene early on. The chorus sings well into the bargain. And as a curtain closer we have Michael Collins in Prelude, Fugue and Riffs – not as swing out sister as Americans do it, but engaging.

Gershwin looms large. Rhapsody in Blue is heard complete in Peter Donohoe’s performance in the Grofé orchestration. He plays with drama, not too much metrical freedom but considerable incision. He follows this with a peppy selection from the Songbook, brief and pungent. The last, I Got Rhythm, reminds us of the celebrated film of Gershwin playing it. There’s a fair amount of excitement in the Concerto in F which Donohoe recorded four years after the Rhapsody. The bonne bouche of Harvey and the Wallbangers (from Rattle’s The Jazz Album, as was the Rhapsody) had a certain amount of cringe quality back when the record was first released, I seem to remember, but I do quite like the playing of the London Sinfonietta in this elemental triptych.

And it’s to Gershwin that the rest of the box is devoted – three discs of the classic Glyndebourne Porgy and Bess. The recording was made in Abbey Road and the cast had honed its performance to a requisitely high standard. There is atmosphere her a-plenty, a fine approach to and appreciation of the essential swing in Gershwin’s writing as well as to those moments of opulent string gloss. The brass section is on the money as well. The cast meanwhile proves wholly splendid, with White, Haymon and Blackwell a trio of unimpeachable quality and the run-down of singers shows that there are no weak chains anywhere, simply strength in depth – amongst whom it would be invidious to omit Damon Evans’s Sportin’ Life.

The booklet gives cast lists and essential information – synopses and a brief essay on Rattle and ‘Americana’. I’d go for this one – if, that is, you lack Rattle’s Porgy, which takes up three sevenths of the box.

Jonathan Woolf

CD 1
John ADAMS (b. 1947)

Harmonielehre (1984-85) [40:30]
Nixon in China: The Chairman Dances - Foxtrot for orchestra (1987) [12:47]
Two Fanfares: Tromba lontana [4:07]
Short Ride in a Fast Machine - Fanfare for orchestra [4:24]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Decoration Day (1912) (conclusion) [4:20]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (jazz band version – opening only) [4:40]
Wayne Marshall (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Elliott CARTER (b.1908)
Three Occasions for Orchestra - A Celebration of some 100 x 150 notes [3:34]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918–1990)
West Side Story - Symphonic Dances: Mambo [3:48]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
CD 2
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918–1990)

Wonderful Town [66:44]
Prelude, Fugue and Riffs [7:46] *
Kim Criswell, Thomas Hampson, Audra McDonald, Brent Barrett, Rodney Gilfry, Carl Daymond, Timothy Robsinson, Robert Fardell, Lynton Atkinson, Michael Dore, Simone Sauphanor, Melanie Marshall, Kimberly Cobb
London Voices/Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Simon Rattle
* Michael Collins (clarinet)/London Sinfonietta/Simon Rattle
CD 3
Duke ELLINGTON (1899-1974)

Take the 'A' Train [9:06]
You're The One [2:56]
Sophisticated Lady [5:12]
Harlem (a tone parallel to Harlem) [14:10]
Isfahan [4:50]
Ad Lib on Nippon [8:50]
That Doo-wah Thing from 'It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing' [9:05]
Something to Live For [4:33]
Come Sunday [5:30]
Solitude in Transblucency [4:38]
Maybe [2:45]
Things ain't what they used to be [7:15]
Lena Horne (vocals), Clark Terry and John Barclay (trumpets), Booby Watson (alto saxophone), Joshua Redman and Joe Lovano (tenor saxophones), Regina Carter (violin), Geri Allen (piano), Lewis Nash (drums), Peter Washington and Mark Goodchild (bass), Peter Walden (cor anglais), Colin Parr (clarinet), Andrew Barnell (bassoon), Richard Simpson (oboe)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
CD 4
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

Porgy and Bess Act 1[57:59]
CD 5
Porgy and Bess Act 2, Scenes 1-3 [72:26]
CD 6
Porgy and Bess Act 2, Scene 4 and Act 3 [59:09]
Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, Harolyn Blackwell, Damon Evans, Bruce Hubbard, Cynthia Clarey, Marietta Simpson, Gregg Baker, Barrington Coleman, Johnny Worthy, Curtis Watson, Mervin Wallace, Maureen Brathwaite, Autris Page, Paula Ingram, William Johnson, Linda Thompson, Colenton Freeman, Camellia Johnson, Alan Tilvern, Billy J Mitchell, Ted Maynard, Ron Travis, Wayne Marshall
Glyndebourne Chorus/ London Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
CD 7
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

Rhapsody in Blue (original version with jazz band) [16:06]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
London Sinfonietta/Simon Rattle
George Gershwin's Song-Book
Swanee [0:33]
Nobody but you [0:52]
The man I love [1:51]
I'll build a stairway to paradise [0:38]
Do it again [1:36]
Fascinating rhythm [0:46]
Oh, lady, be good! [1:05]
Somebody loves me [0:46]
Sweet and low-down [1:20]
Clap yo' hands [0:34]
Do, do, do [0:45]
My one and only [0:39]
's Wonderful [0:46]
Strike up the band [0:48]
Who cares? [1:28]
That certain feeling [1:06]
Liza (All the clouds'll roll away) [2:27]
I got rhythm [1:06]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Piano Concerto in F [31:54]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
After you've gone [3:22]
Nobody's Sweetheart [2:30]
Sweet Sue [4:44]
Harvey and the Wallbangers/London Sinfonietta/Simon Rattle

rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 1993 (Adams); 1995 (Ives, Carter, Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue extract and Bernstein Symphonic Dances) 1999 (Ellington album); No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 1988 (Porgy and Bess); 1990 (Gershwin Songbook) 1998 (Bernstein Wonderful Town); CTS Studio, Wembley 1986 (Rhapsody in Blue, complete version); 1986 and 1987 (Creamer/Layton, Kahn/Erdman and Harris/Young); 1987 (Prelude, Fugue and Riffs); Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick 1990 (Gershwin Concerto in F)



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