George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) (orch. Ferde Grofé, 1926) [14:51]
An American in Paris (1928) [18:09]
Concerto in F (1925) [31:48]
London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn (piano and conductor)
rec. June 1971, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 50999 4 33288 2 [65:13]
It’s a brief welcome back to Previn’s 1971 Gershwin album, now reissued yet again, this time in the EMI Masters series complete with a cover mini mock-up of a recording master sheet. Sensibly EMI has retained the LP art as integral to its design. Who would want, even now, to forego Previn’s natty look, all denim and cravat, as he stands, defying the known laws of gravity, in the clouds behind a series of stars (but no stripes)?
If one can tear oneself away from Previn’s sartorial chic, and his Beatle mop, one must acknowledge that his pianism and conducting have both withstood any tests that Time may have thrown their way. Some prefer another, rather more bellicose American pianist-conductor in this repertoire, but Bernstein’s recordings were very different and in many ways complementary. I don’t know how much of an advantage it is to be a fine jazz pianist in this repertoire — as Previn is, and as Bernstein wasn’t — because the very best Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue
players include men such as Oscar Levant and Earl Wild, who weren’t jazz players either, but were bravura technicians with wonderfully descriptive powers of pianism. Best, I think, not to try too hard — Bernstein tried increasingly too hard as he aged — which is why Previn’s 1980s Philips Pittsburgh remake is not noticeably inferior to this 1971 LSO performance though it does, perhaps, lack a touch of sparkle.
For the Concerto and Rhapsody Previn had his own orchestra, and star instrumentalists; men like Gervase de Peyer and, especially audible in the second movement of the Concerto, the trumpeter Howard Snell. The percussion aura is visceral still, all these years later: the wa-wa brass surprisingly authentic, the ethos idiomatic without being kitsch, with Grofé’s orchestration preferred to the original. Previn was sometimes marked down for his supposed sin of urbanity in the Rhapsody, and perhaps more so in the case of the Concerto. I still don’t hear it, or understand it. He knew far better than his critics. He certainly doesn’t over stress the jazz affiliations of the work, but when you listen to the bizarre games that authentic jazz pianists have played with Gershwin’s concertos — and I’ve heard them indulge five-minute jazz ‘cadenzas’ in the middle of them — I think we should be grateful. If Gershwin had wanted the piano part to sound like a Harlem Stride performance he would have, in Jean-Luc Picard’s words, made it so.
Previn’s An American in Paris
retains its glitter and colour and vibrancy. Drama married to felicity will always score highly; characterisation allied to technical sophistication, too. Add to that a splendid Christopher Bishop/Christopher Parker production and you have full value for money.
Sensitive, when required, and dramatic when need be, Previn still cuts the mustard in this repertoire.