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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Piano Concerto in F [33:05]
Lullaby for String Orchestra [8:32]
Cuban Overture [10:32]
Rhapsody No.2 [14:50]
Promenade [3:08]
Rhapsody in Blue [18:03]
I Got Rhythm Variations (1934) [9:01]
Catfish Row (suite from Porgy and Bess) [25:16]
An American in Paris [17:53]
Jeffrey Siegel (piano)
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 1974, Powell Hall, St. Louis. USA
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94861 [70:19 + 70:18]

In my review of the Orion Weiss/JoAnn Falletta/Buffalo Philharmonic recording of the Gershwin Piano Concerto on Naxos 8.559705 I suggested there were two extreme ways of approaching the concerto - either as an orchestrated piece of jazz or as a romantic piano concerto with jazz influences. JoAnn Falletta and her virtuoso soloist present the latter view and very good it is too. I also suggested that the closest direct comparison to the new Naxos CD was Jeffrey Siegel’s famous recording (VoxBox 1154832) which still remains for me a prime choice. Well, that recording has now returned to the catalogue courtesy of Brilliant Classics and the double CD set, identical in content to the original Voxbox release, offers formidable value for money.

The performances are consistently brilliant. Siegel takes a fairly relaxed approach in the Piano Concerto - as he does in the Rhapsody in Blue - but his playing has an authenticity about it. He offers more than just superficial polish. His style, with its jazzy inflections — almost taking liberties here and there — and a subtle use of rubato and swing, sounds perfect for the music. Special mention must be made of Susan Slaughter’s superb trumpet playing in the second movement. Principal Clarinettist George Silfies must also be singled out for his work in Rhapsody in Blue and his real tongue-in-cheek rendition of Promenade which is also known as Walking the Dog. If this doesn’t make you smile then nothing will.
 
Rhapsody No.2 is one of Gershwin’s near misses and in truth I don’t find Siegel’s version as appealing as Weiss on Naxos. Siegel’s I Got Rhythm Variations is excellent and rivals the wonderful Earl Wild on RCA. The American featured in this particular An American in Paris is in one heck of a rush and the opening is fast and energetic, only just avoiding the accusation of being out of control. The big tune is beautifully played by the solo trumpet and there is an attractive sleaze to the string playing.

The beautiful and rarely heard Lullaby for Strings, the inconsequential Cuban Overture and a suite from Porgy and Bess complete the programme. This is not the usual Symphonic Picture by Robert Russell Bennett but a suite of five movements prepared by Gershwin himself. The banjo in the second movement sounds great and steals the show.

The recording is high quality analogue from 1974 and it’s one of the best to come out of Vox. It has a very natural concert hall sound and the acoustics of Powell Hall allow plenty of sparkling detail to emerge whilst retaining enough ambient warmth to add a glow to the slightly dry sound. The balance is excellent and the sound packs a punch (super percussion) without any artificial spotlighting.

The standard of orchestral playing is of the highest order and Slatkin and his musicians are in inspired and spectacular form. There’s polish, panache, style and drive from beginning to end. If there’s a better set of Gershwin’s orchestral music on the market then I’ve yet to hear it. It’s a classic recording and an incredible bargain.
 
John Whitmore