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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Strike Up the Band - Overture (arr. Don Rose) [6:56]
Rhapsody in Blue (arr. for full orchestra, Ferde Grofé) [18:28]
Promenade (arr. Sol Berkowitz, adapted by Paul Rosenbloom and John Fullam) [3:32]
Catfish Row: Suite from Porgy and Bess (arr. Steven Bowen) [25:25]
Orion Weiss (piano) (Rhapsody); John Fullam (clarinet) (Rhapsody and Promenade)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
rec. 20 November 2010 (Rhapsody, Promenade), 8 October 2012 (Strike Up the Band, Catfish Row), Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York
NAXOS 8.559750 [54:21]

I was a big fan of the first CD in this series, which found pianist Orion Weiss joining the Buffalo Philharmonic for Gershwin’s piano concerto and Second Rhapsody. I wrote “Judging from the extremely high quality of this effort, [the sequel will] be a treat!” My colleagues Dan Morgan and John Whitmore had a few reservations but were similarly pleased. Unfortunately, now that the sequel is here, it’s so disappointing that it calls my earlier enthusiasm into question.
 
Orion Weiss brought a classical gentility to the piano concerto, treating it like a romantic concerto with a jazz accent rather than vice versa. Or so I thought. Listening to the Rhapsody in Blue, which has a similar approach, I grew alarmed: this isn’t “classicized”; it’s just boring. Weighed down by Ferde Grofé’s later arrangement of the Rhapsody for a Hollywood-size orchestra instead of jazz ensemble, Weiss and conductor JoAnn Falletta extend the piece to unprecedented length. Compare Rhapsody timings:
 
Bernstein …. 16:24
F. Kempf …..16:21
Levine ……. 16:10
Mayorga ….. 15:31
Previn EMI .. 14:58
Weiss ……... 18:28 

Previn observes a few cuts, I think, but consider: Mayorga, the jazziest of the five and by far my favorite, snaps through with a grace that actually approaches classical beauty through the backdoor, while Weiss and Falletta are simply dull. The performance starts promisingly, but there’s never any “lift,” no sense of momentum or daring or contrast. It plods on. This Rhapsody needs excitement, life, bustle, a twinkle in its eye and an olive in its martini.
 
Speaking of performances that compare unfavorably to 1920s cocktails, this Catfish Row could also stand to have a few drinks and lose its inhibitions. It’s too concerned with hitting its mark and being correct. There are some great solos from brass players - shout-out to the trombone - but generally the ensemble is earthbound, even in the hurricane scene. Additionally, the booklet tells me this is a new revision by Steven Bowen, but not how it differs from the old revision by Frank Campbell-Watson, which was used on the far jazzier, more virtuosic, and more exciting recording by James Levine and the Chicago Symphony.
 
Now, when I suggest that these performances are too sober, I’m not suggesting that the performers actually go drinking. But Gershwin was a great innovator who brought the world of jazz headlong onto the classical stage. You really get that sense on the Mayorga CD of the Rhapsody in Blue, or on James Levine’s Chicago disc with the Rhapsody and Catfish Row. Not so much here. Despite a few really game solos, and a bass drum which shook my headphones, these performances just don’t get it. They’d rather suggest Gershwin as an heir to Arthur Sullivan than illuminate the way he was so fresh and new. Originally I was excited to think of a Volume III containing An American in Paris, Lullaby, and the Cuban Overture. Now I’m scared.
 
Brian Reinhart 

Naxos American Classics review index