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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [19.25]
Piano Concerto in F (1925) [37.29]
Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ [10.34]
Eight Preludes for Solo Piano (1926-27) [17.30]
(see end of review for detail of Preludes)
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Leon Botstein
rec. St John’s, Smith Square, London, 2-3 October 2015
SOMM SOMMCD260-2 [67.47 + 17.30]

This is rather a new look at some very familiar Gershwin. Bebbington — well known for his probing readings — claims that he and Botstein “… discovered unexpected shades among the famous melodies …” The result: a freshness and a sense of joyous spontaneity that is distinctly appealing. Rather than a polite stuffy Park Avenue sensibility, this interpretation seems to tap the very essence of the thrusting, thriving metropolis that is the real New York.

The Piano Concerto in F was written in the year following Rhapsody in Blue and what strides in confidence and technique Gershwin gained in such a short time. One can tell right from the beginning, with the raw, emphatic timpani thuds that this reading is going to be something rather special. Rhythmic vitality is very much in evidence; so much so that I was completely carried away and could hardly keep still through much of the progress of the opening Allegro movement. Bebbington is alert to all the jazz inflections and syncopations without sacrificing the more classical elements. The music is thrillingly and unusually detailed and nuanced in bright sound engineered by Ben Connellan.

In a separate press release issued by Somm, Bebbington, claimed that "There is a real Mahlerian melancholy that lies at the heart of the slow movement of the Concerto, and it's when you take note of those profundities that the fierce joy elsewhere really makes sense." That may be so but for me the music of this exquisite movement is more reminiscent of Delius’s Paris. Both works share the elation of what could be a night out, a slightly tipsy one for Bebbington, around the City hot-spots before the music quietens. You sense the observer has wandered into a quieter, leafy part of the City and is in a sadder, more reflective mood brooding over ‘what might have been’?

The Final Allegro returns us to bustling, busy daytime City business; the rawness and urgency of its commerce with honking taxis and loud, colourful demonstrative New Yorkers. Then at the work’s final climax one senses a drawing away from the particular to an overall bird's eye view of the metropolis; the swagger falls away to be replaced by material cast in what Elgar termed nobilmente mood demonstrating an immense sense of affection and pride in this great City.

Very much the same comments apply to Bebbington and Botstein’s view of the more familiar Rhapsody in Blue. Their reading brings a breath of fresh air – the music has depth and contrast; the high spirits are brash, raw and invigorating. Again you hear material rarely discerned. Bebbington’s brilliant virtuosity makes the cadenza glow and that heart-warming tune is tenderly sung. The Bebbington/Botstein Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ are joyous too. Elated, the music skips, hops and leaps merrily through sparkling syncopations - and dreams romantically.

In an astute ‘two for the price of one’ marketing ploy, Somm offers a 17+ minute second CD devoted to the Eight Preludes for solo piano. The detail of them, with self-explanatory descriptions is set below and the music is drawn from the Piano Concerto heard on CD 1 and much material Gershwin used in other works. All are played with Bebbington’s virtuosic mastery and expressive aplomb.

So, accepting that these readings of the Concerto and Rhapsody are entering a very crowded field they should hold their own very well. My ultimate choice for best recording? I will confess I still maintain my allegiance to André Previn’s 1971 EMI Classics recording now available on Warner Classics and Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed CBS-Sony reading.
Ian Lace
Eight Preludes for Solo Piano
No. 1 in E flat Major: ‘Novelette in fourths’ (c. 1919) [2.50]
No. 2 in G Major ‘Rubato’ (1923) [1.15]
No. 3 in G minor ‘Fragment’ (1925) [0.26]
No. 4 in F minor ‘Melody’ (1925-26) [2.58]
No. 5 – No. 1 of Three Preludes - Allegro ben ritmato deciso (1927) [1.42]
No. 6 – No. 2 of Three Preludes- ‘Blue Lullaby’ Andante con moto (1927) [3.57]
No. 7 - No. 3 of Three Preludes ‘Spanish Prelude’ – Agitato (1927) [1.23]
No. 8 in A flat Major ‘Sleepless Night’ (reconstructed by Kay Swift, 1946) [2.56]



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