George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [16:12]
Catfish Row – Symphonic Suite (1936) [23:45]
Concerto in F for piano and orchestra (1925) [29:02]
Rialto Ripples (1917) [4:35]
Stefano Bollani (piano)
Gewandhausorchester/Riccardo Chailly
rec. 28-30 January 2010, Gewandhaus, Leipzig
DECCA 478 2739 [73:37]

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!’

Dominy Clements

This will do just fine!