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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue* [16:16]
An American in Paris** [18:09]
Piano Concerto in F^ [30:15]
I Got Rhythm^^ [3:04]
Bonus tracks: Love walked in [3:29]; S’wonderful [2:39]; Fascinatin’ Rhythm [3:29]
Columbia Symphony Orchestra*
New York Philharmonic Orchestra**/Leonard Bernstein (piano)*/**
Eugene List (piano)
Eastman-Rochester Orchestra/Howard Hanson^; Frederick Fennell^^
rec. *CBS 1959, **CBS 1957, ^/^^Mercury 1960. ADD
ALTO ALC1247 [76:12]

For many readers I’m sure that it will be enough to know that the reissue of these classic performances comes with good transfers and at budget price. The single reservation is that the new release goes head to head with another budget-price CD (Regis RRC1386) which I reviewed in the May 2012/1 Download Roundup.
Both can be found for around £5.00 or less – shop around: different suppliers charge more for one than the other. There’s very little to choose between Bernstein and List in Rhapsody in Blue or between the two performances of An American in Paris. Both are top-rate and both recordings have come up sounding very well indeed, with little allowance needing to be made for their age. If, as I assume, the transcriptions were made from LPs, there is little sign of that. I compared the Bernstein recording with a CBS CD transfer and also to the Qobuz CD-quality streamed version of a more recent Sony release (88697757642), both made from the master tapes, and found little to choose between them.
The same performance of the Piano Concerto, recorded by Mercury in 1960, features on both releases. To the best of my knowledge, this classic performance is currently available in the UK only on these two budget releases, the Philips twofer which contained them (4628592) having apparently gone the way of all flesh. US readers may find both it and the Mercury CD of Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto still available.
Here again there is little to choose between the two transcriptions in terms of sound. The piano was notoriously difficult to record even as recently as 1960, with wow and flutter a potential problem on reel-to-reel tape recorders or ‘swinger’ LPs where the hole was not dead-centre. In fact, there’s not a trace of tonal insecurity on either transfer, a tribute to Mercury’s practice of recording on 35mm film. I see that one reviewer in 1959 noted a degree of brittleness in the original release, which makes the quality of the sound on CD all the more remarkable.
In recent years John Wilson and his orchestra have been bringing some fine performances of music from American musicals at the Proms and on CD. There’s an excellent recording of I got rhythm on Warner/EMI 0288452 – Recording of the Month: review and Download Roundup September 2011/2 – but Frederick Fennell’s performance on Alto is fully its equal. There’s also a fine recording of this piece on the BIS recording listed below.
I overlooked Benjamin Grosvenor’s performance of Rhapsody in Blue when it was released in 2012, but the fact that John Quinn made it a Recording of the Month – review – prompted me to listen in CD-quality sound from Qobuz (Decca 4783527). It’s all that JQ says in terms of performance and recording and it comes with equally fine performances of the other works. Even if you have already bought that recording, only the Rhapsody overlaps with the Alto and Regis reissues and you get Grosvenor’s free-wheeling Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2 and a jazzy account of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G on the Decca.
Another fine recording of Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto comes from Freddy Kempf with the Bergen Philharmonic and Andrew Litton (BIS-SACD-1940). Brian Reinhart thought that everyone should have a Gershwin recording that sounded like that – review – and I thought it came pretty close to rivalling Bernstein – Download News September 2012/2. If the Second Rhapsody – not quite the success that its predecessor was – and SACD or 24-bit download sound appeals, this could be the one for you.
By contrast with all these recordings of Rhapsody in Blue, Orion Weiss, the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra and JoAnn Falletta sound a little tame, even with the advantage of being available on Naxos Blu-Ray (NBD0033 – review).
If you didn’t buy the Regis release when it came out, or even if you did – and even if you have one or other of the Decca and BIS recordings – this new Alto release is so inexpensive that you need only forego a discounted bottle of wine at the supermarket to pay for it. Even the cover looks classy – I’ve criticised some Alto reissues for looking old-fashioned, but the shot of New York seen through a yellow filter gives this fine reissue a distinctive appearance. If we still had the Bargain of the Month category, this would be sharing that honour with another recent Alto reissue of classic recordings of much the same vintage: members of the Vienna Octet in Beethoven’s Septet, Op.20 and Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op.16 (ALC1243).
Brian Wilson