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The Birth of Rhapsody in Blue
A Reconstruction of Paul Whiteman’s Historic Aeolian Hall Concert of 1924
Ivan Davis, Dick Hyman (piano soloists)
Charles Castleman & Randall Hodgkinson (violin & piano duo)
Mendelssohn String Quartet
New Palais Royale Orchestra/Maurice Peress
Recording details not provided
NIMBUS NI2584 [2 CDs: 118:01]

Music historians frequently mention the famous concert put on by Paul Whiteman on 12th February 1924 at New York’s Aeolian Hall entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music”. Its importance in musical history lies in the fact that it was the first presentation of a work which has gone on to be a 20th century classic and the one of the first true “crossover” works, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But few music historians have gone in deeper and looked at precisely how the Gershwin work fitted into the context of that concert. Here we have the full concert recreated by Maurice Peress and his team of multi-talented musicians, and hearing the music, along with reading Peress’s own thoroughly researched and deeply illuminating booklet, offers a fabulous insight into one of the significant events in the history of 20th century music. This recording first appeared on the Musicmasters label in 1986, but Nimbus has brought it back into circulation with this two-disc reissue both of the music from the concert itself and a selection of Gershwin “classics and hard-to-find rarities”.

The concert, as presented on this disc, ran as several themed sections culminating with Rhapsody in Blue. The first section was entitled the “True Form of Jazz” and on this recording these modern-era players exude the true Dixieland spirit in their exuberant, slightly shambolic account of LaRocca’s 1917 Livery Stable Blues with its musical imitations of horses braying and roosters shrieking, while they then bring tight discipline to Abel Baer’s 1924 Mama Loves Papa with Dave Bargeron easily stepping into the shoes of the original trombone soloist, Roy Maxon.

Next came two “Comedy Selections”, Yes, We Have No Bananas which segues effortlessly here into So This Is Venice, which was a showcase for the extraordinary talents of the Paul Whiteman band saxophonist, Ross Gorman, who, we read, “set up his rack of instruments (there were ten listed in the programme) in front of the band and switched from one to another”. Here Gorman is replaced by the almost equally multi-faceted Andrew Shreeves (seven instruments) and Jack Kripl (six instruments) plus the violin of Andy Stein. It’s all an exuberant riot of instrumental virtuosity, even if the famous theme soon outlives its attraction.

“Contrast, Legitimate Scorings vs. Jazzing” came next and featured the Whiteman band’s own big hit of the year, Whispering by John Schoenberger, which was put through a series of orchestrations, including one featuring here the extraordinary slide whistle of Dave Bargeron.

Heading into what was then more adventurous territory, the next section was headed “Recent Compositions with Modern Score” and opens with two arrangements by Ferde Grofé – Limehouse Blues and Linger Awhile - designed to showcase the banjo talents of the Whiteman band’s star banjoist, Mike Pingatore, ably recreated for this recording by the considerable banjo virtuosity of Eddy Davis.

Zez Confrey got a section of all his own in the concert as composer and pianist, and here his place is taken by Dick Hyman who gives an outrageously exuberant version of Kitten on the Keys. Some doubt exists over what precisely came next in the 1924 concert, but for this recording Hyman gives a beautifully tranquil, flowing performance of three Little Oddities before rounding this section off with the flamboyant Nickel in the Slot, which marvellously imitates the sound of a coin-operated player-piano. Hyman ends his slot with a medley of pieces by Irving Berlin.

What came next was simply extraordinary; jazz band arrangements of Classics intended by Whiteman to pave the way for the concert’s climax. Has Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 ever sounded quite like it does here? Grofé’s medley of various popular bits of Russiana was possibly prepared in honour of the presence at the 1924 concert of Sergei Rachmaninov (represented in this piece by a snippet of his C minor Prelude). Continuing the theme of standard classics given the jazz band treatment, we begin to dig even deeper into the world of crossover, with, among others, Edward MacDowell’s To A Wild Rose given the “dance rhythm” makeover.

The final two works in the concert were both original commissions, and included what was to be Victor Herbert’s very final composition. A Suite of Serenades is described as “the most challenging work on the entire programme” and comprises four movements which adopt various national styles and intermingles typical musical and dance gestures from Spain, China, Cuba and Arabia and a wonderful bit of orchestral pastiche. After hearing the Gershwin work which followed his own piece, Herbert apparently said “I wish I had written that, I would have done more with it” and, perhaps hearing Rhapsody in Blue here in its original version for jazz orchestra with prominent parts for banjo and saxophones, one might see his point. As it is, though, as Peress writes, “in the light of current interest in urtext editions of classical music”, this recording gives real historical authority to a work which has long since broken away from its original style and scope. Nobody with an interest in Gershwin should be without this version, presented with both authority and aplomb – and with Walt Levinsky doing things with that notorious clarinet solo few others have dared.

The short second disc presents a compendium of Gershwin’s “serious” compositions, which includes a scintillating account of Gershwin’s original symphony orchestra version (with some touches of pure Walton about it) of the I’ve Got Rhythm Variations with some sparkling pianism from Ivan Davis, who also presents a compelling account of the Three Preludes for Piano as well as the lesser-known Waltzes in C and Rialto Ripples. Never published in his own lifetime (it eventually appeared in print in 1968), Lullaby was Gershwin’s sole attempt at writing for string quartet (it dates from 1919 or 1920) and yet it is a richly expressive, beautiful piece, Ira Gershwin described it as “charming and kind”, which is exactly the qualities this perfectly-proportioned performance by the Mendelssohn Quartet reveals in this superbly open-hearted recording. Another real rarity is Gershwin’s only piece for violin and piano, Short Story, which was written for Samuel Dushkin, the dedicatee of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, in 1926. Although based on earlier piano pieces, Gershwin shows a remarkable sensitivity towards the instrument and its possibilities. Charles Castleman and Randall Hodgkinson present a compelling case for this little-heard gem. Peress, whose empathy with the musical idiom and style of Gershwin informs every moment of this release, directs his own impressive orchestration of the Strike up the Band Overture.

Marc Rochester

Nick LaRocca (1889-1961): Livery Stable Blues [2:00]
Abel Baer (1893-1976): Mama Loves Papa [3:23]
Frank Silver (1892-1960)/Theodore Thomas (1835-1905):
Yes, we have no bananas/So This is Venice [4:48]
John Schoenberger (?): Whispering [3:11]
Philip Braham (1881-1934): Limehouse Blues [2:46]
Vincent Rose (1880-1944): Linger Awhile [2:44]
Jerome Kern (1885-1945): Raggedy Ann [2:58]
Zez Confrey (1895-1971):Kitten on the Keys [2:29]
Three Little Oddities –
Romanza [1:00]
Impromptu [2:01]
Novelette [1:39]
Nickel in the Slot [2:02]
Irving Berlin Medley –
Orange Blossom in California [1:21]
A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody [1:28]
Alexander’s Ragtime Band [1:38]
Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Pomp & Circumstance March No.1 [5:19]
Ferde Grofé (1882-1972): Russian Rose [3:37]
Frederick Knight Logan (1871-1928): Pale Moon [3:50]
Edward MacDowell (1860-1908): To a Wild Rose [2:06]
Rudolf Frimi (1879-1972): Chansonette [2:52]
Victor Herbert (1859-1924): A Suite of Serenades –
Spanish [1:44]
Chinese [ 2:31]
Cuban [2:28]
Oriental [1:39]
George Gershwin (1898-1937):
Rhapsody in Blue [16:21]
I’ve Got Rhythm Variations [8:56]
Lullaby [7:00]
Short Story [2:20]
Three Preludes for Piano [6:36]
Strike up the Band Overture [6:31]
Two Waltzes in C [4:43]
Rialto Ripples [2:47]

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