André Previn’s recording of the Gershwin piano concerto has
been universally acclaimed since its original release in 1971,
and with good reason. It is still one of the best performances
available, with Previn both performing and conducting at his
jazzy best. His pianism highlights the ways in which Gershwin
consciously turned the conventional concerto form upside-down.
After the jaunty, percussion-heavy opening, his entrance on
piano is moody, improvisatory and wonderfully blue. In the slow
movement, by contrast, the mellow trumpet solo forms the centerpiece
to a beautiful nocturne until Previn mischieviously interrupts
with the strutting piano part (track 4, 3:10).
All through this recording, the London Symphony Orchestra is
in absolutely top form. This is a concerto in which rather surprising
stretches go by without a piano part. With the LSO at this high
level there is never any risk of boredom. The violins have Hollywood
sweep when needed (track 3, from 4:00 on). The brass, especially
trumpeter Howard Snell, acquit themselves brilliantly. I also
love the woodwinds’ work in passages like that beginning at
1:56 of the finale.
The virtues of Previn’s performance as soloist and conductor
have been the subject of many a critic’s praise. I will simply
observe here that he has a genius for Gershwin’s often jolting
transitions; each successive episode is immediately convincing,
such that within a few seconds of realizing that we are in unfamiliar
territory, we are already hooked. Listening to some of the more
recent competition, I notice that Michel Camilo on Telarc has
the right light touch in certain portions, but that his playing
and that of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra are simply not
up to the same technical level as Previn and the LSO. The Rochester
Philharmonic (on Harmonia Mundi) is an impressive ensemble backing
up a pianist, in Jon Nakamatsu, who can match Previn note-for-note
in both technical skill and swinging style. Owners of SACD equipment
will want the Nakamatsu disc, but it comes at twice the price.
One more argument in favor of Previn is that the present recording
does not really show its age at all. Previn’s piano part gets
submerged in the orchestra at the ten-minute mark of the first
movement, but otherwise the sound quality strikes me as being
fabulous. The two other works on this disc, recorded in digital
in 1981, sound just as fine.
One of the other two works here is Robert Russell Bennett’s
adaptation of Porgy and Bess as a suite for concert orchestra.
The Bennett suite was written for Fritz Reiner, who apparently
chose the musical numbers included, selected the order in which
they would be presented, and dictated the length of the work
to fit plans for a recording. Gershwin’s own suite, Catfish
Row, is preferable, and I would take Gershwin’s if forced
to choose; luckily nobody is forcing me. The major difference
is that Bennett substitutes an upbeat jazz number for the powerful
centerpiece of Catfish Row: the enormous, terrifying
hurricane which forms one of the mighty moments in American
symphonic music. I miss the hurricane, and urge you to seek
out a recording of Catfish Row if you have not heard
it - for example, James Levine’s fine take with the Chicago
The other main differences are in the transitions, with Bennett
preferring more complex changes while Gershwin opts for simple
but rather jarring leaps from tune to tune. Finally, in the
orchestration of the very beginning and ending bars, Bennett
unaccountably revises Gershwins intentions, to his detriment.
Compounding the error, Previn revises Bennett's own suite, cutting
the entire introduction, six minutes or so of slow music drawing
together melodic fragments from the final scenes of the opera.
Of what is left of the Bennett suite, there are few performances
as enticing as this one, though I would have wished for more
romance, more flexibility of tempo in the treatment of "Bess,
You Is My Woman Now."
Also on the program is the Second Rhapsody, a considerably
less melodic follow-up to the Rhapsody in Blue. This
work is heavily dependent on repeated notes, insistent rhythms,
and improvisatory piano writing. Originally it was to be called
the Rhapsody in Rivets, a much more colorful title which
also better reflects the musical content; Gershwin’s second
thought here was clearly not his best.
The second rhapsody has never been as popular as the first;
its material is just not as interesting, its tunes not as memorable.
On first listen, I was prepared to dismiss it, but the music
is growing on me with time. Cristina Ortiz takes over soloist
duties and does a very fine job.
These recordings have a long and tortured release history; the
Piano Concerto was previously available on an EMI
Great Recordings of the Century issue for about this price,
coupled with the Rhapsody in Blue - in the bloated, inferior,
somewhat cut re-arrangement for full orchestra by Ferde Grofé
- and a good American in Paris. Most of Previn’s Gershwin
recordings can be had in EMI’s
absurdly inexpensive 10CD box set devoted to his greatest
hits, as well. At any rate, an immensely satisfying collection
of Gershwin’s orchestral music can now be inexpensively had
by purchasing this recording of the piano concerto and Levine’s
Chicago recording of the Rhapsody in Blue. If the Previn
Gershwin Concerto is not yet in your library, what are you waiting
see also review by Brian
We thank George Ferencz foe some suggested
amendments to this review to detail cuts made by Previn in the
Gershwin-Bennett suite - 12-4-10