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George GERSHWIN (1998-1937)
Music for Clarinet and Strings (arr. Franck VILLARD)
Porgy and Bess Suite [44:08]
Piano Concerto in F – excerpt from second movement [6:59]
An American in Paris (excerpt: second section) [5:28]
Three Preludes [7:07]
Michel Lethiec (clarinet)
Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä/Patrick Gallois
rec. Laukaa Church, Finland, 22-27 October 2007. DDD.
NAXOS 8.570939 [63:59]

 


CD: Crotchet

Porgy and Bess – A Symphonic Picture (arr. Robert Russell BENNETT) (1942) [17:19]
Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra (1931) (arr. Robert MCBRIDE)1 [15:16]
Concerto in F for piano and orchestra (1925)2 [31:56]
Cristina Ortiz (piano1)
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (piano2)
rec. No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, June 19712, July 1980. ADD2/DDD
EMI CLASSICS AMERICAN CLASSICS 50999 9 67135 2 [64:49]

 

Experience Classicsonline


 

 
The conventional suites of music from Porgy and Bess are Gershwin’s own Catfish Row, written when the opera flopped, and resurrected in 1950, and Robert Russell Bennett’s Symphonic Suite of 1942. Franck Villard’s arrangement for clarinet and strings on Naxos is a much longer work than either of these. The advantage is that it contains much more music; the disadvantage is that less of that music is really well known. The new version is more closely linked to the chronology of the opera – full details are given in the very helpful notes, which are written by the arranger, Franck Villard.
 
Gershwin’s orchestrations are hardly sacrosanct – witness the fact that the band and orchestral versions of Rhapsody in Blue come courtesy of Ferde Grofé’s arrangements – so adding a clarinet, in Franck Villard’s Suite from Porgy, seems perfectly legitimate. The ‘smoochy’ sound of the clarinet, mostly taking the part of the human voice, is well suited to Gershwin’s music. I shall certainly want to hear this arrangement from time to time.
 
I’m likely, however, much more often to turn to Catfish Row or the Bennett Symphonic Picture. With the Bennett arrangement the listener doesn’t have to wait so long for the first big tune: Summertime is here before you know it, partly because Previn abridges the music slightly in his performance on EMI.
 
There is a third version to consider, Gershwin’s own Catfish Row, reissued on an earlier American Classics CD which I reviewed last year. On that disc, a performance by the St Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin is coupled with An American in Paris and Lullaby (also Slatkin), Rhapsody in Blue (Donohoe and Rattle) and Previn’s Cuban Overture. (2066282 – see review).
 
Though I stated my preference for the Bennett arrangement – I managed to get his name in a tangle, referring to him as ‘Richard Rodney Russell’ – I enjoyed that Slatkin performance very much. For this work, I think honours must be about even between Slatkin and Previn. Though the new Naxos recording is attractive and the performance idiomatic, if a little lightweight beside EMI’s two contenders, I can’t see it as much more than an interesting curiosity. There’s just too much music here that sounds fine in the dramatic context of the opera, but seems too much like makeweight in the suite; the interest of the listener and, I think, of the performers, occasionally sags as a result. The Symphonic Picture may be less subtle than either Catfish Row or Villard’s arrangement but I really like the way that it goes for the jugular and the large-scale performance and recording which it receives from Previn and EMI do it full justice.
 
As befits the Villard arrangement, the Naxos recording is more intimate, with the clarinet well forward. My last encounter with Sinfonia Finlandia and Patrick Gallois was on a Naxos recording of early Haydn symphonies, where I found them very acceptable but a little lacking in a sense of period style – see review. Together they have also recorded Gounod’s symphonies for Naxos: Brian Burtt recommended their rhythmic snap and clarity of texture there but, significantly, added that he didn’t think they would have “a rich enough sound for (say) Debussy.” (8.557463 – see review.) His words neatly sum up my reaction to their playing in Gershwin, where rhythm and clarity are, of course, important, but where a fuller sound is sometimes required than the Sinfonia offer, though the perkiness of Michel Lethiec’s playing offers a good deal of compensation.
 
The EMI version of the Piano Concerto with Previn as soloist and conductor dates from 1971, when it was coupled with American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. Reissued, still at full price in 1986, it was generally thought preferable to his 1985 re-make of all three works for Philips and it still sounds well, concluding the CD with a bang. Some will continue to prefer Previn as soloist with Kostelanetz conducting, on an older CBS recording now coupled with Bernstein conducting American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue (mid-price Sony 82876787682), but you won’t go far wrong with the EMI Previn.
 
As between this idiomatic performance of the complete work and the excerpt from the second movement alone on Naxos there is no competition. CBS issued a CD of Gershwin’s music many years ago which included just one movement from the Previn/Kostelanetz Piano Concerto; the excuse then was that early CDs rarely exceeded an hour’s playing time.
 
Why on earth Naxos chose to record just part of the work now is beyond me. I understand Franck Villard’s stated aim to produce a mini-concerto for clarinet in the excerpt from the Piano Concerto, but I’d rather he’d gone the whole hog and adapted the whole work. As it stands, it’s a pleasant enough discursive little piece but, shorn of the finale, lacks the punch of the original.
 
The same applies to the excerpt from American in Paris, though, at least, this offers the whole of the middle section of the work. Either of these works could have been recorded complete – to accommodate the Concerto we could easily have been spared the Three Preludes and the abridged American in Paris – which would have been preferable to these skeletons. I thought that Slatkin’s version of American yielded slightly to Bernstein on the Sony recording which I’ve mentioned above, but it is very enjoyable; it represents my only real reservation about that CD, and, at least, it contains the whole work.
 
What we have on Naxos, therefore, is one slightly over-long work, two truncated works, and some short pieces. Clarinet lovers will doubtless enjoy the result, especially the bluesy arrangement and matching interpretation of the excerpt from American in Paris. I certainly don’t wish to give the impression that I disliked it, but either of the EMI American Classics recordings gives me greater pleasure.
 
The new EMI reissue is rounded off with Previn’s account, with Cristina Ortiz as soloist, of the Second Rhapsody. Don’t make the mistake of expecting a rehash of its more famous predecessor and I think you will find it a powerful and impressive work. It certainly doesn’t deserve its almost complete neglect, especially when heard in this very good interpretation.
 
Both EMI recordings still sound very well indeed. The Cuban Overture on the earlier reissue and the Piano Concerto on the new disc are ADD, but you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart from the newer DDD sections of each. The Naxos recording, too, offers credible, slightly leaner sound. The EMI booklet offers brief notes – just over a side in each of three languages – the Naxos notes are rather fuller and include an idiomatic English translation of Villard’s French originals.
 
Previn’s Philips/Pittsburgh performances are due to be reissued on Decca’s The Originals label in January, 2010, and his American in Paris-Piano Concerto-Rhapsody in Blue coupling remains available at mid-price on EMI Great Recordings 5668912. My recommendation would be to go for the two EMI American Classics reissues – each available for little, if any, more than the Naxos – with the Naxos clarinet arrangements an attractive proposition for anyone who would like a longer suite from Porgy and/or has an attachment to the clarinet. If my review leads you to suspect that I wanted to like this version rather more than I actually did, you would be quite correct. The more I played it, however, the closer I came to liking it; I certainly don’t wish to damn it with faint praise. Had it not appeared almost simultaneously with the EMI Previn reissue, I might well have liked it better.
 
I haven’t heard Naxos’s other Gershwin recording, with the New Zealand SO and James Judd offering a Robert Russell Bennett potpourri of Gershwin in Hollywood, American in Paris, Cuban Overture and the Russell Symphonic Suite from Porgy and Bess, but Dave Billinge liked it and, I imagine, it would have a wider appeal than their new recording. (8.559107 – see review).
 
Brian Wilson
 
 


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