George GERSHWIN (1898 - 1937)
Rhapsody in Blue
(1924) [16:53]
An American in Paris (1928) [17:57]
Porgy and Bess (1935) - A Symphonic Picture (arr. Robert Russell Bennett (1942)) [23:21]
Morton GOULD (1913 - 1996)
Latin American Symphonette (1940) [20:57]
Leonard Pennario (piano); Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/Felix Slatkin
rec. details not given - re-issues from Capitol SP-8343 (Rhapsody and Paris) and
SP-8474 (Porgy and Gould). ADD
EMI CLASSICS 6066912 [79:29]
Felix Slatkin, leader of the MGM Studio Orchestra and the Hollywood Quartet, was a musician of many and varied interests. He was father of conductor Leonard and cellist Fred, friend of Frank Sinatra and husband of cellist Eleanor Aller. Interestingly, his recording of Delius’s Caprice and Elegy for cello and small orchestra was the only version available for many years. Having feet in many different camps, he was the obvious choice for this repertoire for he has the ability, unlike many conductors, to be able to treat lighter music with the respect it truly deserves.
These performances of Gershwin’s best known, and loved, works are superb. Just have a listen to the performance of An American in Paris and you’ll know what I mean. The opening is so nonchalant as to be almost a throw-away statement. As he gets going you can hear his delight in the work, and he allows some marvellously vulgar trombone playing to intrude on the visitor’s walk round the City of Light. But there’s also the coolest flutes you could imagine and the most sensual cor anglais solo. The great blues tune is given a broad sweep and the whole performance just swings with a very well calculated insouciance. The strings at 13:16 have just got to be heard for their sheerly sexual sound. This moment, alone, is worth the modest asking price! Rhapsody in Blue is as fine a performance and it’s good to hear Leonard Pennario in full flight. Slatkin manages to make his orchestra sound, at times, as if it were a jazz band, and he allows the saxophones to be heard but never to overpower the texture, as can so easily happen. What makes these performances so good is that whilst they are occasionally brash and vulgar - nothing wrong with that for the music can take it, it is, after all, very extrovert stuff - Slatkin injects real love and care. That is what lifts these performances into a special category, occupied only by Gershwin’s own performances and those by Oscar Levant and Julius Katchen.
Robert Russell Bennett’s scenario of music from Porgy and Bess although created after Gershwin’s death, was made before Gershwin’s own suite had been discovered. Bennett often made these kinds of pieces from vocal works he had had a hand in bringing to life. Interestingly he made a version of West Side Story, which is quite different to Bernstein’s own Symphonic Dances. All the tunes are here and what I like about this performance is that it has a concert room feel. Never for one minute did I miss the voices singing the tunes.
In some ways, Morton Gould’s Latin American Symphonette is the most successful work here, because he isn’t trying to be anything other than an entertainer. Occasionally I wonder about Gershwin, who tried so hard to make it in the concert hall, that he seems to be trying too hard. No such problems with Gould. He truly was equally at home on Broadway, in Hollywood and in Carnegie Hall. He, certainly, was a more all-round composer. The title Symphonette came about because Gould noticed that there were, in many homes, kitchenettes and similar things so he thought that perhaps music should be brought up to date. Thus he wrote a Concertette for piano and four Symphonettes for orchestra - the famous Pavan is the middle movement of the 2ndSymphonette. He later regretted the titles but I cannot see why for here is one of the most joyous pieces I know. The four movements are a rumba, tango, guaracha and a final, riotous, conga. They make an enjoyable suite which is infectious in its charm and good nature. The orchestration is brilliant and always interesting. Slatkin’s performance is exemplary, if not quite matching Howard Hanson’s superb mono Mercury recording (which appears not to be available at the moment) which has a sweep so extrovert that one is carried away with the fiesta the orchestra unleashes upon you. Slatkin is less Spring Break than Hanson, but more Fourth of July. Nevertheless this is excellent and it completes a disk I could not be without. The sound is very good with a rich and full-blooded bloom. You’d never guess that they were all made over fifty years ago!
This is far too good and enjoyable to be missed.
Bob Briggs