George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [15:45]
Piano Concerto in F (1925) [33:43]
Three Preludes for Piano (1926) [7:09]
Bidin’ my Time (1930) [3:27]
Dorothy Lewis-Griffith (piano)
rec. July 1989 and March 1992, Concert Hall, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Music, England
ETCETERA KTC 1176 [60:15]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
An American in Paris (1928) [18:54]
Novelette in Fourths [9:42]
from Porgy and Bess (1935) [29:21]
Second Rhapsody (1931) [15:44]
Dorothy Lewis-Griffith (piano)
rec. University of Cambridge, England, dates not given
ETCETERA KTC 1419 [70:43]
American pianist Dorothy Lewis-Griffith has had a long and distinguished career. She studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and at the École Normale de Musique. There have been numerous awards, including a prize in the Geneva International Music Competition. This neat little pair of CDs go well together. The recording of An American in Paris is the more recent release and fills in some of the gaps left by the original ‘Piano Solo Album’.
George Gershwin published very little concert music for solo piano. Any pianist seeking to record an all-Gershwin solo album of any kind will have to resort to transcriptions and arrangements of one kind or another. Angela Brownridge’s ‘Complete Music for Solo Piano’ on Hyperion Helios CDH 55006 throws in a goodly number of Broadway numbers but actually complements these two discs quite well rather than competing directly. It includes arrangements of overtures and fun miniatures like Rialto Ripples which don’t appear on these Etcetera albums. Gershwin left his own piano solo transcription of the Rhapsody in Blue, and this together with that of the Piano Concerto in F by Grace Castagnetta form the basis for the first CD. Lewis-Griffith writes that “I missed many of the textures that I am accustomed to hearing when I played Gershwin with orchestra … [and] had few qualms about reproducing these textures, even though it meant amplifying Gershwin’s own transcription.” Knowing Gershwin’s own playing style it is easy to be sympathetic to this approach. The results are very convincing indeed, with plenty of variety in the piano colour for the Rhapsody in Blue. We don’t have the juicy clarinet slide in the opening and that very first trill isn’t played perfectly. You can’t expect everything to sound equally punchy and vibrant, but as a solo piano version this has a great deal to commend it. Lewis-Griffith not only swings rhythmically for the most part, but can shape the score like an expert conductor as well as a musically sensitive and technically proficient pianist. This is not quite the life-enhancing experience a good orchestral performance can be, but there are enough signals and reminders to ‘take us there’ without the listener feeling too short-changed.
The Piano Concerto in F is a little more problematic as a solo piece. The interaction and dialogue between soloist and orchestra is tricky to bring off in a solo transcription despite the piano playing a leading role in the score. It helps if you already know the original version when unpicking who should be doing what. There are still plenty of succulent musical morsels to sink your aural teeth into, and there is a great deal of magnificent playing. As something which involves working harder – both as a listener and as a musician - I would rate this project a couple of notches less successful than the Rhapsody in Blue.
The first of these programmes finishes with a few fillers, of which the Three Preludes are played with panache and verve. The schmoozy number Bidin’ my Time comes from the Broadway musical Girl Crazy. It makes a nice little encore to conclude a very satisfactory Gershwin piano album. As far as the actual recording goes the piano is set at a little greater distance than is perhaps ideal, but the acoustic is not intrusive, and detail and colour are communicated well.
Released more than 15 years later, the second disc treats An American in Paris to a similarly augmented version. This is based on previously existing arrangements but refers to the original score to fill out missing lines and textures, and on occasion even whole passages left out from other versions. As a Gershwin work whose original lacks a piano part entirely, this is considered the ‘most awkward to play’ of the works brought together here. There are indeed some fascinating results arising from the transcription to piano, with percussive effects reminiscent of Stravinsky and Bartók popping out from time to time. Again, this isn’t the kind of version which is going to replace your favourite orchestral recordings. As with any good transcription and performance it teaches us new things about a piece we might even have considered over-familiar. It makes us alert to aspects of the music which, when presented shorn of orchestral opulence, become exposed and altered in terms of perspective.
This isn’t a perfect recording, with a deal less stereo imaging at the outset. A sudden change at 8:25 improves the soundstage but reveals some mildly twangy tuning problems with the upper range of the piano. In fact the whole thing could be a good deal more distinct and confident sounding, but the general impression is tolerable. It is an acoustic picture to which you can become accustomed without too much strain.
The Novelettes are of interest in this recording. Gershwin biographer, the late Edward Jablonski, gave Dorothy Lewis-Griffith copies of unpublished manuscripts to three Gershwin preludes, but the manuscript to the Novelette in Fourths was incomplete. Gershwin had however extended the piece in one of his piano roll recordings. Lewis-Griffith transcribed the sixteen measure extension from that recording and has included in the version on this CD. Each of these pieces is filled with easy charm, being related in terms of mood and even thematic material. The Sleepless Night and Melody 17 are variants of each other and are played here without a break.
The numbers of Porgy and Bess need little introduction, and Lewis-Griffith plays them atmospherically and with suitable lyrical finesse. There is a nice sense of wit to songs like There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’. I like the way the soloist doesn’t ham up the more sentimental tunes too much. This is a kind of souvenir recording, “mere reminders of that landmark 1935 creation” as the booklet notes put it, but still a fine collection to have.
This second disc concludes with the Rhapsody or Second Rhapsody as it has become known. The score is another transcription made by Dorothy Lewis-Griffith. The piece is once again brought to life with suitably full and juicy pianistic sounds. Less familiar than the Rhapsody in Blue, this is a piece with cinematic associations and a good deal of visual hustle and bustle. This is communicated here with character and conviction.
Dorothy Lewis-Griffith has made these pieces her own in these recordings. Both of these CDs are easy to recommend and nice to have around. I’m not going to compare these versions with other orchestral recordings. They will always be something of a supplement to the best of what is already a pretty full current Gershwin catalogue. Lewis-Griffith certainly has the chops to manage some fiendishly tricky passages in these transcriptions. While she might not be the jazziest or most ebullient performer on the planet I have certainly not come away from these with any sense of, ‘nice, but if only…’ Even with mildly dodgy production values in the American in Paris programme, fans of the piano and the ways it can be stretched to incorporate an entire orchestra can have great fun with these versions. If you are lucky enough to be given one you will certainly want the other.
Supplementary versions, but certainly of interest.