George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue (1924, orch. Grofé 1926) [16:23]
An American in Paris (1928) [16:43]
Concerto in F (1925) [28:57]
Cuban Overture (1932) [9:22]
Variations on I Got Rhythm (1934) [8:02]
Earl Wild (piano)
Boston Pops Orchestra/Arthur Fiedler
rec. Boston, 1959/61
MINUET 428423 [79:29]
It's time to reappraise another early-stereo classic. This Rhapsody in Blue used regularly to be hailed as comparable to Bernstein’s (Sony). Perhaps everyone was mesmerized by the idea of Fiedler, a Pops icon, giving the score a respectable full-orchestra treatment.
Rehearing the performance now, the conducting sounds spectacularly uninformed. Fiedler’s no-nonsense manner works well enough in the introduction, though we've become used to the clarinet, in particular, getting some time to "lay back" on the beat, and the horn response sounds hurried. The tuttis, however, sound merely impatient. In the big string tune at 10:34, the conductor goes to the opposite extreme: the tempo and texture suggest molasses, and the horns’ responses slow things down still further. It’s hard to understand the earlier fuss; if you were to judge Fiedler solely on this performance, you'd conclude that he had no feeling for popular style at all!
I've not meant to neglect the pianist in all of this. Earl Wild does understand the style, and his playing supplies the needed virtuosity, insouciance, and mercurial lightness: some of the unaccompanied passages are bewitching. But he can’t redirect the performance on his own.
An American in Paris is better, particularly at the start: it moves along easily, though Fiedler still likes to push the tempo in the more excitable passages, drawing some slurry articulation from what was basically the Boston Symphony string section. The English horn phrases at 3:12 are offhand, not particularly felt, and both of the big trumpet soli -- the walking theme at 7:08 and the bouncy tune at 11:20 -- are played completely straight, as notated, with no swing at all. You can make a case for this reading, especially in the latter case -- where the responses from other instruments always do go in straight eighths, after all -- but it still sounds uptight.
Minuet has filled out the original Rhapsody-American coupling -- once standard on vinyl, though short measure -- with the contents of an entire second LP; the engineering, from a few years later, moves back a bit from the players, better allowing us to appreciate Earl Wild’s layered textures and lapidary precision in the Concerto in F. Fiedler's first-movement tuttis still sound self-consciously pressed. but he gives some point to the rhythms, and draws glamour from the massed strings at 3:50. The big string theme at 6:30, unlike its analogue in the Rhapsody, is warm and flowing rather than thick -- it probably doesn’t hurt that Wild is playing the whole time. The rest goes well enough; the more distant perspective mitigates some lack of expansiveness in the slow movement, while the direct approach is to the point in the finale.
The I Got Rhythm Variations are fun, if not particularly spiffy, but this Cuban Overture is a write-off. Woodwind intonation -- questionable throughout these performances -- leaves the opening tuttis sounding especially wheezy and tinny; sustained supporting chords are woozy, lagging just slightly behind the broader melodies.
Bernstein’s venerable performance of the Rhapsody holds up surprisingly well; so does that with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting to a doctored version of the Gershwin piano roll (also Sony); both recordings bring An American in Paris along for the ride. Among digital recordings, I haven’t heard William Tritt’s, with the Cincinnati Pops under Erich Kunzel (Telarc), but it’s probably worth tracking down. For the Cuban Overture, Maazel (Decca), while not particularly jazzy, gets crystalline playing from the Cleveland Orchestra and pellucid sound.
Stephen Francis Vasta
[Stephen Francis Vasta is the Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York. (lighthouseopera.org)]