George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
A Gershwin Songbook - Improvisations on Gershwin Songs (I loves You Porgy (1935) [3:32]; They Can’t Take That Away From Me (1937) [2:14]; Summertime [12:10]; Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off (1937) [2:50]; Love Walked In (1937) [5:49]; By Strauss (1936) [4:00]; Our Love Is Here to Stay (1938) [5:36])
I Got Rhythm - Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1934) [8:33]
Piano Concerto in F [33:02]
Wayne Marshal (piano and conductor); Aalborg Symfoniorkester
rec. Henry Wood Hall, 30 April-1 May 1992, and 4 May 1993 (Songs); Aalborg Symfonien, Aalborg, Denmark, September 1994 (I Got Rhythm); 15-19 May 1995 (Concerto). Stereo/DDD Text included
EMI CLASSICS 6066882 [77:53]
The premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 was considered an epochal event in the development of American music. So impressed was the famous conductor Walter Damrosch that he commissioned the composer to write a fully-fledged piano concerto. Gershwin’s ideas of the form of a concerto were sketchy, but he taught himself the facts appropriate to the task and produced his new Concerto in F in December 1925. It has been very popular ever since, although some have preferred the Rhapsody in Blue.
The main themes of both the first and middle movements of the Concerto are wistful and sometimes even sad. The second theme of the first movement is Gershwin in what might be described as his “city streets” mood. Gershwin’s variants and combinations of the two themes throughout the movement are very imaginative and characteristically charming, ending with a wonderfully animated version of the second theme. In the second movement the solo trumpet is practically as important as the piano. The woodwinds are also significant here and beautifully scored. The alternation between piano and trumpet produces a variety of moods, ending with what is perhaps the most famous theme slowly rising to a climax and then gently dying away. The last movement is the most traditional, with lots of drive by the piano, accompanied by a number of subsidiary themes in the orchestra. Eventually, piano and orchestra combine on one of these themes, producing a wonderful section leading to a tutti and then a short reprise of the opening material and the coda.
Gershwin liked to improvise on his songs at the piano and formalized this practice when asked to write a work to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Rhapsody in Blue. He wrote four variations for piano and orchestra on I Got Rhythm and it is surely one of his most charming works. The first variation, after a clever orchestral introduction, is complex and virtuosic, but animated and joyous at the same time. The second is a fascinating waltz, reminiscent of one of the film scores, while the third is the composer’s conception of Chinese music. The fourth variation is very rhythmic, with one hand playing the melody straightforwardly and the other hand upside down. A staccato piano part and then full orchestra leads to a bluesy finale. A charming performance, almost as winning as that on Erich Kunzel’s complete Gershwin set.
On this disk we are also treated to paraphrases in the Lisztian style of several Gershwin songs and two excerpts from Porgy and Bess. These are variable in interest. By Strauss lends itself most naturally to this sort of treatment and comes out very well. Our Love Is Here to Stay is paraphrased very interestingly by Mr. Marshall, as is Love Walked In. The others, especially the opera excerpts, did not impress me.
Wayne Marshall, organist, pianist, conductor, arranger, is both soloist and conductor on these recordings, originally made in 1992-1995. His piano playing, both of his own paraphrases and in the Variations, is flawless - full of life. I found him a little less stimulating in the Concerto and this is also true of his leadership of the Aalborg Symfonien in this piece. The group itself occasionally plays roughly, but basically with a sharp sense of rhythm and joie de vivre. Their woodwinds are especially good. Altogether, a sound and reasonable disk of two of Gershwin’s best pieces, although some will prefer the Kunzel (Telarc) or Rattle (EMI) performances, which are more finished (see review).