There is no shortage of recordings of these pieces around,
but the energetic action shot on the cover of this new version
promises to deliver plenty of good things. I can however imagine
people standing in their local shop or gazing at the computer
screen, wondering if the renowned Leipzig Gewandhausorchester,
with its long tradition of top-notch classical music performing,
has the chutzpah to bring Gershwin’s style of jazz to life.
Starting with Rhapsody in Blue we’re in hotly contested
waters from the outset, but any concerns one might have had
are dissolved immediately. I’m not sure quite what Chailly has
done with his orchestra, but I’ll bet a big box of bouncy balls
that no-one hearing this blind and without prior knowledge would
say, ‘ah, this is of course the renowned Leipzig Gewandhousorchester’.
This piece has to compete with the likes of the excellent Steven
Richman recording on the Harmonia Mundi label, which had
something of a coup by getting the original clarinetist Al Gallodoro
to kick off the piece with that marvelous siren solo. Thomas
Ziesch gets us off to a very good start, and all of the percussive
touches and brass ‘wha, whaa’ effects are done very convincingly
indeed. This is the more compact Ferde Grofé ‘jazz band’ version,
but mere orchestration is no automatic guarantee of genuine
swing. What makes this recording stand out from the rest is
jazz pianist Stefano Bollani’s touch in the solo part and his
take on the cadenza passages in this piece, which involve a
certain amount of improvisation. Gershwin did this kind of thing
as well, and the license for some freedom is well taken. Bollani’s
first solo is a jaw-dropping pianistic masterpiece, and his
playing is full of fun and little throwaway inflections where
the score allows for such flexibility. He doesn’t stray too
far from Gershwin’s idiom or outstay his welcome, and there
are no extended self-indulgences. The second solo in the twelfth
minute takes us into softer, almost impressionistic fields,
but this sparing dip in dynamic allows the music to build from
almost nothing to that big repeated-note cadenza and those fanfare
flourishes which lead into the last big tune. This is a pianist
whose jazz pedigree allows for the kind of virtuoso surprise
that audiences would have demanded from their soloists in the
Baroque era, and it is his contribution that lifts this performance
beyond the merely excellent to the stunningly special.
Without solo pianist, Gershwin’s suite on the music for Porgy
and Bess, Catfish Row is relatively uncontroversial.
Riccardo Chailly draws blood and tears from his orchestra however,
and is alive to the music’s connection to other composers like
Stravinsky and, to my ears, the Broadway style of Leonard Bernstein.
All of those beautiful tunes such as Summertime are allowed
to speak with clarity, without being pulled around or distorted.
The playing is superb as you would expect, but also with a genuine
feel for the idiom – you can sense that the players, allowed
to let their hair down for once, take the opportunity with both
hands and live the music to the full.
There’s no improvising from our soloist in the Concerto in
F, but once again all of the playing is full of finesse
and zing. Having a player with a jazz background does make all
the difference, though it is sometimes hard to put your finger
on why. Stefano Bollani has a way with phrasing, harmonic voicing,
inner lines and rhythm which is just ‘different’ in subtle ways
which take the music into regions other than one might expect
or be used to from a classical performer. Bollani is certainly
never out of his comfort zone in a technical sense, and his
performance here is the equal of any alternative I could name.
The first movement is a joy from start to finish, and I especially
like the syncopated material in the last few minutes. The central
Andante is rich in lovely orchestral detail, and the
piano’s cheeky notes are guaranteed to raise a smile, and the
final Allegro agitato is bumptious and spectacular.
The programme is concluded with another real highlight, Rialto
Ripples, which suits Stefano Bollani’s pianism perfectly.
Supported once again by an orchestra having the time of its
life, Bollani brings the spirit of Erroll Garner into the room
with his right hand chord/melody treatments. The stride bass
is marvelous. The disc ends with our pianist playing on as the
orchestra gets up and leaves, the two Italian maestros bidding
each other a friendly farewell.
This is a cracking release which, whatever the competition in
this repertoire, can safely go into everyone’s shopping basket
or wish-list. The photo on the cover says it all – ‘wish I’d
been there, but this will do just fine!’