George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Piano Concerto in F (1925) [33:53]; Rhapsody No.2 (1931) [15:54]; I Got Rhythm Variations (1934) [8:53]
Orion Weiss (piano)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Kleinhans Concert Hall, Buffalo, 17-20 November 2010
NAXOS 8.559705 [58:39]
 
This is a very attractive Gershwin showcase but thereís one minor irritation to get out of the way first of all. After a thrilling opening to the Piano Concerto with realistically balanced percussion we come to the first entry of the soloist and, quite unbelievably, the piano is slightly out of tune with the two opening octave Cs sounding quite unpleasant. This should have been avoided; itís a shame. Moving quickly on thereís so much more to enjoy here and very little to criticise.
 
There are two extreme ways of approaching the concerto - either as an orchestrated piece of jazz or as a romantic piano concerto with jazz influences. JoAnn Falletta and her virtuoso soloist present the latter view and very good it is too. Nothing is overstated or interpreted to death. The music is allowed to speak for itself. Thereís clearly a good rapport between conductor and soloist and despite the tuning issue at the very beginning the whole thing is as smooth as silk. The musicians produce a sophisticated, creamy orchestral sound rather than one inspired by the world of jazz. The solo trumpet in the slow movement, played with a straight tone, gives the music a gentle, nocturnal, atmosphere but doesnít quite hit the mark. Itís not quite ďdirtyĒ enough. The marvellous string tune at 8:30 is a knock-out, played with just enough schmaltz without it becoming cloying. The finale - not the strongest of movements - zips along nicely and brings the concerto to a very exciting conclusion.
 
The young soloist, Orion Weiss, has an impressive list of awards to his name and that comes as no surprise. He has that special gift of making you listen to what he has to say. Thereís nothing barnstorming or aggressive about his work. His perfect technique is there to serve the music and he doesnít use it to browbeat the audience. Some will criticize the concerto for not being flashy enough but itís enjoyable, very musical and leans towards Rachmaninov rather than Tin Pan Alley.
 
Turning to the sound quality, the admittedly impressive piano image is just too large and forward. Despite this the orchestral detail still shines through with the exception of some woodwind entries which are - to these ears at any rate - occasionally overwhelmed. Horns are spectacularly caught, brass and strings are glorious and the dynamic range is huge. The whole orchestra is set in a natural-sounding hall ambience and producer/engineer Tim Handley has certainly delivered the goods. Of its type this is a fine recording.
 
For smooth sophistication of execution captured in digital sound, this Buffalo production will be widely admired. The 1957 Mercury recording (CD 434 B341-2) by Eugene List is still to be cherished for those who prefer a more visceral and jazzy approach. Listís first movement clocks in at 12.01 compared to the 13.48 of Weiss. Itís more outwardly virtuosic and very exciting, ably supported by the Howard Hanson directed Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. The closest direct comparison to the new Naxos is Jeffrey Siegelís famous recording (VoxBox 1154832) which remains a prime recommendation. Compared to the Buffalo recording it has a clearer, drier sound and a realistically balanced soloist. Siegel also has a more natural swing to his playing and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin has the edge over the excellent Buffalo Philharmonic. The solo trumpet in the slow movement is nicely distanced and sounds really sleazy, suggesting a warm night in Manhattan or maybe even a smoke-filled bar in the early hours. The Vox recording has less concert hall ambience, dynamic range and warmth but every detail tells.
 
I doubt that prospective purchasers will be bowled over with the prospect of Rhapsody No.2 being one of the fillers. Itís always thought of as a second rate brother to Rhapsody in Blue but it receives a fabulous performance here, just about the best now placed before the public. JoAnn Falletta conjures up some inspired, witty orchestral playing that really makes you smile. This is pure Hollywood, no more, no less. Written originally as film music I must admit that I couldnít get the image of Tom and Jerry walking through the streets of New York out of my mind whilst listening to it. The work emerges here as a nostalgic piece of Americana and itís tremendously enjoyable.
 
Finally we come to the I Got Rhythm Variations. This has an extra ingredient thatís not always in evidence in the performance of the concerto - spontaneous fun. Itís as if the hard work has been done, the microphones have been turned off and this is an encore at the end of the recording session. Itís more daring, high-spirited and unbuttoned. In truth itís the best thing on the CD, Weiss is outstanding and the orchestraís contribution is superb.
 
In summary this isnít a top recommendation for the Piano Concerto but itís still very good. The fillers reach a higher level and are well worth the price of the disc alone.
 
John Whitmore
 
Controlled, sophisticated virtuoso playing captured in fine sound.