George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Piano Concerto in F [33:54]
Rhapsody No 2 [15:53]
Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ [8:49]
Orion Weiss (piano)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 17-20 November, 2010, Kleinhans Concert Hall, Buffalo, New York, USA
NAXOS 8.559705 [58:35]
My colleague John Whitmore summed up this interpretation of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto well: it views the piece as a serious classical concerto with expressive merit and a vibrantly jazzy bent, rather than a series of riffs with orchestral accompaniment. Orion Weiss doesn’t noodle around with the solo part, and the Buffalo Philharmonic doesn’t pretend to be a jazz band: the result is not sober, or strait-laced, but it is an argument that Gershwin wrote really solidly built classical works. Maybe some day we won’t need to have that argument.
Weiss is a pianist I’d never heard of, but between his playing here and his absurdly silly website, I find him very easy to like. He mostly plays the music straight, except for a bit of teasing in his very first bars and the occasional confident strut thereafter. The tunes roll off the piano with unaffected charm and lyrical shape; Weiss’s entrance in the adagio is so perfectly done it gives me chills. The Buffalo Philharmonic, under JoAnn Falletta, are his equals, and the partnership is a truly inspired one with a real sense of synergy (try the first movement at 10:18). The orchestral players often steal the show, in fact, as when the strings surge in at 8:30 in the adagio and slip back tenderly forward at 10:18, or in the exquisite woodwind solos which end the movement. The finale is ever-so-slightly lacking in fire compared to Jon Nakamatsu, who recently recorded this concerto for harmonia mundi only 75 miles to the east, with the Rochester Philharmonic. It makes sense in the context of the Weiss-Falletta conception of the work, though, and you’re not going to get me to choose between the two outstanding recordings anytime soon.
Next up is the Rhapsody No 2, a sequel to the one in ‘blue’ which somehow never quite caught on despite chipper tunes, colorful orchestral outbursts like the one near the beginning, and a percussive piano part which reminds us that it was originally to be the Rhapsody in Rivets. I’m sad Gershwin ducked out of that (much better) title. I’m glad that such a glittery performance (listen to the trumpets from 1:50-2:10!) is delivered here, Weiss and the Buffalo players matching each other’s incredible enthusiasm. This rhapsody isn’t on its predecessor’s level - the swooning violin tune, with its luxurious portamenti, has nothing on the tune in Blue - but it’s still more of a delight than its obscurity suggests, and Gershwin’s rather childlike excitement with the possibilities of orchestral music is matched by the glee with which these players take care of the piece.
The disc concludes with the delightful “I Got Rhythm” Variations, and again the orchestra enters into the Gershwin with spirited playing. I do have some concerns about Orion Weiss here, though, particularly his statement of the theme, which is laden with tiny dynamic and rhythmic adjustments. Lincoln Mayorga, on harmonia mundi, shows this music can still be bubbly fun without the finicky teasing. Still, after ninety seconds everybody’s too busy having a good time for me to keep being critical. The whole CD gets a big boost from vividly colorful sound, although as John Whitmore notes, the impressive capturing of the piano - how flattering to its full-bodied tone! - does place the instrument quite far forward in the balance, almost like you are sitting on it with the orchestra around you. This is no great obstacle to a recommendation.
According to an old news bulletin on Naxos’ website, these recording sessions also included the Rhapsody in Blue. I’m not sure why the Rhapsody in Blue is absent here if they set it down at the same time as these three works, but let’s hope it means Weiss, Falletta, and Co. will be returning very soon with a second volume. Weiss can lay down the piano solo in Catfish Row and they could round things out with An American in Paris, the Cuban Overture, and/or the string orchestra version of Lullaby. Judging from the extremely high quality of this effort, that would be a treat!
A real treat of a performance, even for those who have their Previn and their Wild.
see also review by John Whitmore