George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Piano Concerto in F (1925) [33:04]
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [16:32]
Second Rhapsody (1931) [15:20]
I Got Rhythm Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1934) [8:29]
Freddy Kempf (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton
rec. August 2011, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
This is one of the jazziest, liveliest, and most improvisatory Gershwin albums to arrive in a long time. With George Gershwin’s orchestral music, there’s a spectrum of possible interpretations, from performances which emphasize the classically trained side of the composer to those which shake off all the rules and dance. Orion Weiss’s piano concerto on Naxos earlier this year was the former; this is the latter.
A lot of that is because of the Bergen Philharmonic and Andrew Litton. Litton, who’s recorded this music in the past as piano soloist, inspires his players to rare levels of jazzy indulgence: the extra drum rim-shots in the concerto’s introduction; the stylish, sly, debonair trumpet solo which steals the slow movement; the truly delicious clarinet intro to Rhapsody in Blue. Purists might actually be put off, but then, Gershwin himself improvised half the solos in Blue at its premiere, so I don’t think he’d have minded. There’ve been a lot of great recordings of this concerto recently - Jon Nakamatsu and the Rochester Philharmonic, Orion Weiss from Buffalo, Michel Camilo from Barcelona - but no orchestra has more fun than the Bergen players do. I already mentioned it, but Martin Winter’s trumpet solo deserves some kind of prize; from the clarinet, trombone, sax and other players, there are simply too many inspired moments to count.
Freddy Kempf’s approach, by contrast, is to soft-shoe through with elegance and old-time dance-hall grace. In the album’s first few minutes, this seems like it will generate a stylistic clash between soloist and band, but these fears are set aside. Kempf can dazzle when he needs to, and he can also play sensitive to generate a contrast with Litton’s orchestra, which dazzles nonstop. Then there’s the concerto’s finale, insanely fast and purely exciting.
The original-orchestration Rhapsody in Blue also benefits from this rich contrast and from the incredible Bergen Philharmonic, although I wish Kempf’s first extended solo was more assertive. Like the concerto, proceedings really hit their stride after a few minutes to warm up, but when they do, watch out! It’s worth pointing out that an even more authentically jazzy Blue with sparks flying can be had from Lincoln Mayorga and the Harmonie Ensemble, which also happens to be the only recording I’ve yet heard with a finer clarinet solo from 93-year-old Al Gallodoro, who had been playing the part since the 1930s.
The Second Rhapsody goes phenomenally from start to end, and there’s never a suggestion that this sequel work is second-rate; it’s easily my favorite performance of the piece. And the CD ends with the “I Got Rhythm” Variations, a super-snappy encore with gleeful playing from all parties, including a jazz-band drum set and Freddy Kempf romping with the lowest possible inhibitions. My top choice is Mayorga again, on the same CD linked to above.
The booklet is very good; BIS’s hybrid SACD sounds phenomenal, as always. At high volume the best climaxes simply thunder out, all orchestral sections vividly captured from the piano back to the bass drum. There is, uncharacteristically, some kind of acoustical glitch with the piano solo near the start of in Blue. Still, this is an irresistibly fun album on which a Russian pianist and Norwegian orchestra produce incredibly idiomatic New York jazz. Andrew Litton deserves a lot of the credit, but so do his soloists. On the Gershwin spectrum, Orion Weiss’s Naxos CD represents the “classical” approach, Previn is somewhere in the middle, and this is loudly, proudly in a state of jazz. No matter how many Gershwin albums you have, you don’t have one that sounds like this!
Loudly, proudly in a state of jazz, with snappy orchestral solos and an idiomatic sense of fun. The Bergen Philharmonic unexpectedly commands the spotlight.