George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Strike Up the Band - Overture [6:56]
Rhapsody in Blue* [18:28]
Promenade** [3:32]
Catfish Row - Suite from Porgy and Bess [25:25]
Orion Weiss (piano)*, John Fullam (clarinet)**
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. Kleinhans Concert Hall, Buffalo, 8 October 2012 and 20 November 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.559750 [54:21]

I would have loved to have given a warm welcome to what is the second Gershwin/Naxos disc issued by this team from Buffalo. On their first CD (see review), the recording of the Gershwin Piano Concerto (with Orion Weiss again) was excellent without being a top choice. The two fillers were first class, capturing the orchestra in a more relaxed mood with everything brimming over with exuberance and life. Unfortunately, I find the execution on this follow-up album to be smooth, bland and too laid-back for its own good.
Strike up the Band gets things underway with a fine swing but nobody will buy this CD for the sake of an overture. It’s best to look elsewhere for Rhapsody in Blue and Catfish Row. Admittedly, the recording sounds superb throughout and individual solos from the ranks of the orchestra are well up to scratch but there seems to be an alarming lack of bite and enthusiasm. It’s incredibly lush and soupy but just too safe.
In my review of the Piano Concerto I made the point that the soloist, Orion Weiss, has a special gift of making you listen to what he has to say. His perfect technique is there to serve the music and he doesn’t use it to browbeat the audience. In Rhapsody in Blue he takes the same kind of approach but a touch of browbeating wouldn’t have gone amiss quite honestly. The playing lacks pace and energy. The opening clarinet solo is excellent but then things get seriously bogged down. With a timing of 18:28 it seems to go on forever and all the biting, jazzy edge has been removed. This music can speak for itself without too much interpretation. Weiss is continually slowing the phrases down to the point of becoming boring. I much prefer the original orchestration as recorded by Donohoe/Rattle on EMI (16:02). That just explodes into the room. 

(also known as Walking the Dog) is a delicious little piece, featuring the expert clarinet playing of John Fullam. This is a good performance but maybe it’s best to search out Slatkin’s splendid Vox recording which is coupled to a brilliant version of the Piano Concerto with soloist Jeffrey Siegel.
Straight after the delightful Promenade, Catfish Row slips back into something of a stupor. Porgy and Bess is classic American music with an underlying jazz influence. Here we have an orchestra playing in the style of a group of starchy Europeans who don’t quite get the idiom. The whole interpretation needs more adrenalin and fire. Even the banjo player struggles to make a mark. Gershwin has written some fine music but it requires some real American flair and an “in your face” presentation for it to fully engage the listener. The music as presented here sounds safe and dull. In summary this is a really disappointing follow-up disc from the Buffalo Philharmonic. Even the playing time is less than generous.
John Whitmore 


See also review by Brian Reinhart

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