George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy & Bess (1935) Suite - arr. Carl Davis (Summertime [3:14]; A Woman is a Sometime Thing [2:36]; Bess, You is My Woman Now [5:35]; It Ain't Necessarily So [2:38])
Jerome KERN (1885-1945)
All the Things You Are (1939) [4:39]
The Way You Look Tonight (1936) [4:46]
Bill (1927) [4:05]
The Song is You (1932) [5:01]
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1933) [4:30]
Once in a Blue Moon (1923) [4:03]
Lullaby for String Quartet (1919) [7:11]
Joan Enric Lluna (clarinet)
Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz (violins),
Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello))
rec. 24-26 May & 15 July 2011, St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California, USA
FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2008 [48:15]
UK readers will know the Alexander Quartet as a foursome drawn from the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The award-winning ensemble on this disc was formed in New York in 1981 and is now resident in San Francisco. Their list of CDs is eclectic, to say the least, and several have already featured on these pages. Michael Cookson nominated their Beethoven quartets a Recording of the Month – review – and Dominy Clements was equally fulsome about their Shostakovich set (review). In the light of such encomia this Gershwin/Kern selection certainly has a lot to live up to.
The Porgy & Bess suite is an arrangement for clarinet and string quartet by Carl Davis – perhaps best known for his silent film scores – based on Jascha Heifetz’s own transcriptions for violin and piano. Curious listeners may wish to read Rob Maynard’s review of Heifetz playing these pieces. The ASQ kick off with Summertime, Clara’s lovely number from Act I. Joan Enric Lluna’s clarinet sound is bright and clear, but there are one or two moments when his intonation is less than impeccable. Otherwise this is an accomplished performance, albeit short on charm. The acoustic is rather dry and there’s very little ‘air’ around the instruments.
The next two numbers – A Woman is a Sometime Thing and Bess, You is My Woman Now – are pretty uninspiring; I can’t decide whether it’s the arrangement, the playing – or both – that kept me at arm’s length throughout. They have a good stab at Sportin’ Life’s manic It Ain’t necessarily So, but it lacks all character and animation. Suffice to say, anyone who knows and loves this great score will find little to detain them here. Sadly, the same holds true for the Kern selection; All the Things You Are, from Very Warm for May, has a soupy cello line and the harmonies are just a mess. The Way You Look Tonight, from the Astaire-Rogers classic Swing Time, certainly has its lighter moments, but these fleet-footed tunes just don’t dance the way they should.
The admittedly lachrymose Bill – from Show Boat – is the least appealing piece here, but the ASQ redeem themselves with a rather fetching rendition of The Song is You, from Music in the Air. As for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, from Roberta, it offers some deft pizzicato playing but very little else; and Once in a Blue Moon, from Stepping Stones, is just too swoony for my tastes. Thank goodness for the youthful Gershwin Lullaby, which really sings in a way those other ‘songs’ don’t. A delightful coda to an otherwise uninspiring collection.
An enterprising project, but one that doesn’t deliver musically or sonically. I’m just not convinced that Davis’s arrangement and/or this instrumental combo does justice to the harmonic and rhythmic felicities of Porgy & Bess; the monochromatic Kern selection is even less appealing, not helped by a less than ideal acoustic and balance. Factor in a rather short playing time – just 48 minutes – and that dreaded Digipak and you have a very disappointing issue indeed.
Mediocre arrangements and recording; depressing.
A very disappointing issue.