Robert Russell BENNETT (1894-1981)
Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (1935, 1942) [17:19]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Second Rhapsody (1931) [15:16]
Piano Concerto in F (1925) [31:56]
André Previn (piano) (Concerto)/Cristina Ortiz (piano) (Rhapsody)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn
rec. 4, 6 June 1971 (Concerto) and 1-2 July, 1980, No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 9 67135 2 [64:49]
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 Symphony.
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 Gershwin’s intentions, to his detriment. Suffice to say that there has rarely if ever been as dazzling and enticing a recording of the Bennett suite as we have here.
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 for?