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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Overture to Of Thee I Sing (1931) (radio version) [3:16]
Piano Concerto in F (1925) [29:37]
Three Preludes (1926) (arr. Roy Bargy) [6:10]
An American in Paris (1928) [16:57]
Lincoln Mayorga (piano)
Harmonie Ensemble, New York/Steven Richman
rec. 22-24 June 2014, DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907658 [56:19]

Back in 2010 – can it really be so long ago? – I was thrilled by a disc of Gershwin pieces in orchestrations by Ferde Grofé which featured these artists (review). I’m delighted that there’s now a follow-up.

Steven Richman has made a reputation as someone who goes ‘back to basics’ when it comes to the music of Gershwin. Indeed, it could be said that his approach to the composer is as much ‘authentic’ or ‘historically informed’ as is that of the musicians who have so significantly altered our perceptions of composers like Bach. He’s continued to apply his restlessly curious musical mind to the two major works on this programme.

The two shorter items are both recorded premieres. To be precise, in the case of the version of the overture to the musical Of Thee I Sing what’s presented here is the first studio recording of a somewhat shortened version made by an unknown hand for a radio broadcast of the overture in 1931. Though not inherently damaging, the cuts seem to amount to about 25% of the music to judge by the fact that Michael Tilson Thomas’s 1974 recording of the piece with the Buffalo Philharmonic plays for 4:36. Richman and his band offer a sound that’s bright, almost brash – I don’t use the word ‘brash’ pejoratively in this case. The violin cadenza (on the tune’ ‘I was the most Beautiful Blossom’) was retained by the arranger and here it’s rhapsodically delivered by Kurt Nikkanen. The overture ends with the title song from the show and it makes a rousing finale here. This is a splendid opener to the programme.

Later we hear the first recording of Gershwin’s Three Piano Preludes in a 1930s orchestral arrangement by Roy Bargy (1894-1974). Bargy was pretty well qualified for this task because, as I learned from Donald Rosenberg’s very good liner-notes, he was pianist and arranger with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and, of particular relevance here, he made the first recording of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, in the Grofé arrangement; that was in 1928 with Whiteman’s orchestra. I think his arrangements of these preludes work very well. The first one is suitably sassy while the bluesy second prelude includes a particularly ear-catching bass clarinet solo (from 1:32).

Pianist Lincoln Mayorga contributes to the Preludes but he’s centre-stage for the Concerto. For this recording Steven Richman has opted not to use the published score, edited and “improved” by Frank Campbell-Watson, which is usually heard. Instead Richman has gone back to Gershwin’s manuscript and restored the composer’s original intentions. The resulting performance, we’re told in the notes, “highlights the syncopated zest, bluesy allure, and New York energy” of the concerto.

In this performance the piano is placed in quite a forward position by the engineers – but in a way that suits the music. Lincoln Mayorga’s playing in the outer movements exhibits some dazzling pianism but also a willingness to impart the right amount of ‘give’ where appropriate. At 6:23 Gershwin’s winning syncopated tune is idiomatically inflected by the strings, the piano’s decorations ideally placed. The big climax towards the end of the movement is heartfelt but not overstated. The famous trumpet solo at the start of the Adagio is simply fabulous. Trumpeter Tom Hoyt delivers the evocative misty-morning solo as only an American can while the suggestive woodwinds underpin the solo. Richman’s tempo is ideal: he doesn’t allow the music to drag self-indulgently but the pacing is completely atmospheric. From the piano entry onwards (2:33) the music struts along confidently with a nice degree of swagger. At the end the piano and flute revisit the trumpet blues poetically as the movement achieves a tender end. Little needs to be said about the finale save that it fizzes, the music full of verve and dash. Mayorga seems to have Gershwin’s music and idiom in his DNA while Richman and the band support him with tight, streetwise playing. This is a terrific performance of the concerto.

There’s much to enjoy, too, in An American in Paris. Here again Richman has gone back to the original sources and eliminated many of the editorial changes made after Gershwin’s death by his well-meaning editor, Campbell-Watson. At the start our American strolls around Paris like a confident boulevardier, a bright and breezy tempo is just right for this confident man about town. The music is painted in primary colours and the Parisian bustle is well conveyed. I like, too, the amount of detail that registers. There’s some lovely solo violin work – and admirable solos from other players, too – as the music begins to wind down after the initial burst of Parisian morning energy. When we get to the celebrated blues (7:28) trumpeter Tom Hoyt is back to do the honours and the sound of that trumpet is marvellous. Hereabouts, however, I began to have a few doubts. Richman’s approach seems to me to demonstrate a reluctance to linger. No doubt he wants to banish excessive sentimentality, and that’s fine, but I think the emotion and ‘bend’ in the music is sacrificed. I dug out Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 New York Philharmonic recording. Oh, boy! Yes, perhaps Lennie’s tempo is a bit on the slow side but every phrase is savoured. I admire Richman’s clear-eyed approach but I surrender to Lennie’s emotion. In Richman’s performance the ‘Charleston’ episode (11:57) brims over with primary colours and rhythmic precision; mind you, Bernstein is fabulous here. At the very end you may not be surprised to learn that Richman is fairly clear-eyed in the closing bars whereas Lennie just seizes the moment and loves it. It’s perhaps instructive that Richman’s performance plays for 16:57 whereas the consensus timing among other versions in my collection – including Bernstein, Tilson Thomas and Litton – seems to settle around 18:25. As I said, there’s a great deal I admire in Richman’s performance and I know I’ll return to it – probably often. However, when I want to be excited by An American in Paris I’ll ask Bernstein to be my guide round the arrondissements.

Though I have some reservations about the performance of An American in Paris these are by no means deal-breakers. This is another tremendous Gershwin anthology from Steven Richman and I enjoyed it mightily. The recordings are bright, dynamic and positive. The sound is up-front and bold although not in an aggressive sense. The engineers have come up with a result that suits the music and the performances ideally. Donald Rosenberg’s notes are excellent. If, like me, you love George Gershwin’s music you must hear this album,

John Quinn

Previous review: Brian Wilson (Recording of the Month)



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