Bernard HERRMANN (1911-1975) Souvenirs de voyage for clarinet and string quartet (1967) [26:34] George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
George Gershwin’s Song-book (1932) for solo piano, arranged by the composer [23:28] Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967)
Four scenes from childhood for violin and piano (1948) [8:56] George GERSHWIN
Promenade (Walking the dog) (1936, from Shall we dance, 1937) for clarinet and piano, arranged by Anthony Wakefield (b.1942) [3:11]
Lullaby (c.1919-20) for string quartet [7:26] Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Waltz and Celebration from Billy the Kid (1938) for cello and piano, arranged by the composer [6:00]
The Nash Ensemble (Ian Brown (piano), Richard Hosford (clarinet), Marianne Thorsen (violin), Laura Samuel (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Rebecca Gilliver (cello))
rec. 2014, All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London HYPERION CDA68094 [75:37]
I’m always pleased to see discs of music by people thought of solely as ‘film music composers’. While that isn’t the case for Gershwin and Copland it certainly is for Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman. It must have always been particularly difficult for Herrmann to shake off the association with his music for Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, not because it was no good but, on the contrary because it was excellent, especially the famous shower scene. There are echoes of some of the gentler passages from the film music in his delightfully tuneful and melodic Souvenirs de voyage but otherwise this is as far removed from 1960s America as it’s possible to be. It's more redolent of the salons of fin de siècle Paris. However, the influences for it came from British and Irish sources such as the poems of A.E. Housman for the first movement. The second evokes images of the isles of Aran in Galway Bay as booklet writer Nigel Simeone notes, and J.M. Synge’s play Riders to the sea. The finale brings with it images of Venice via the watercolours that Turner created there.
While Herrmann takes the listener far away from 1960s America George Gershwin’s Song-book is intensely evocative of the America of the 1920s. These pieces, all of which are so well known, are played in this version ‘as George Gershwin actually plays them himself’ with all the embellishments he was fond of inserting into his otherwise simple tunes - simple that is when sung. As he explained “Playing my songs as frequently as I do at private parties, I have naturally been led to compose numerous variations upon them, and to indulge the desire for complication that every composer feels when he manipulates the same material over and over again.” The project took him three years to complete during which time more of his shows appeared on Broadway and so some tunes from them also found their way into this collection. Gershwin was an exceptional pianist and readily accepted that some of these solo piano transcriptions are difficult and “... have been put in for good pianists, of whom there are a growing number, who enjoy popular music ...” Ian Brown is by any definition more than a ‘good pianist’ and shows that he is at home playing this kind of repertoire as he is anything else he is called upon to play. He makes these pieces shine as brightly as any ‘jazz’ pianist could do.
Franz Waxman was aged 28 when he arrived in the USA as a refugee from Nazi Germany and had already composed several film scores before leaving for America, including for Fritz Lang (Liliom) so soon made an impact in his new homeland, writing some of the best film music including Rebecca, Suspicion, The Philadelphia Story and Sunset Boulevard. His Four scenes from childhood which he dedicated to Heifetz to commemorate the birth of his son Jay in 1948, are the most charming little gems. They start with Good Morning and a musical evocation of a clock striking 7 a.m. - not that one has to wake babies up. This is followed by Promenade in the shape of a brisk waltz. Then comes Playtime with echoes of Prokofiev’s spiky rhythms and finally there's Bedtime Story which includes a bar charmingly marked quasi yawning and ending with the clock announcing 7 p.m. This is followed by four quiet chords - a truly delightful piece and a wonderful present for any new father.
We are back with Gershwin for two more short pieces starting with his Promenade (Walking the dog) for clarinet and piano which was composed for the film Shall we dance (1937) - another of Fred Astaire's and Ginger Rogers’ hits which got its alternative title from the scene where it was used when the two stars walked Rogers’ dog Walter along the deck of an ocean liner. It is a wonderfully evocative and jaunty little tune that perfectly illustrates the scene. The two instruments, clarinet and piano, vividly bring the image to mind. Gershwin’s Lullaby is a delightful concoction that shows what a composer of ‘popular’ music can do when he wants to show a slightly more sober side with Debussian echoes.
Aaron Copland enjoyed a career that helped establish an ‘American’ music that no longer looked towards Europe for inspiration but instead relied on depicting the wide open spaces of the plains. It is shot through with echoes of the folksongs that were enjoyed by the pioneers who forged new lives as they spread out from the East. These two selections from his ballet Billy the Kid are usually heard in their orchestral version but stripped down for cello and piano they work quite brilliantly. It may seem ironic that what became the very definition in musical terms of the American west, its landscapes and its tough frontier spirit, should be penned by a Brooklyn-born Jew in Paris. That only highlights the fact that music knows no boundaries when the composers have minds that can conjure up worlds that may seem totally different from their own experience. That is the very essence that marks out the successful composer of film music and which was shown to perfection by the likes of Herrmann and Waxman as well as Copland to which list one could add many more. It also underlines the argument that these composers were very much more than just composers of music for films. This disc is a perfect illustration of that. All the music is lovingly played as one has come to expect from this hugely successful and well respected ensemble. This disc deserves to be heard as a great example of American chamber music from the 20th century.