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Manhattan to Montmartre
Leonard BERNSTEIN(1918-1990)

Symphonic Dances
from West Side Story (arr. John Musto, 1998) [21:52]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

Second Rhapsody (arr. Julian Jacobson, 2014) [15:03]
An American in Paris
(arr. Julian Jacobson, 2016) [18:34]
Rhapsody in Blue
(arr. Henry Levine, 1943) [16:39] Julian Jacobson, Mariko Brown (piano duo)
rec. 26-28 August 2020, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0635
[72:30]

Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957) requires little introduction. One of the most successful musicals of the 20th century, it is often regarded as blurring the lines between the musical and the grand opera. It matches great music with an intense plot which owes much to Romeo and Juliet. This is an undoubted high point in American music, a clever fusion of standard European operatic tropes – vocal ensembles, leitmotifs and complex tonal planning – with American jazz and a Latin beat.

The Symphonic Dances look towards standard classical procedures, including relatively few themes developed to such a degree that one need not understand the plot to appreciate the music. It is important to note the progress of the Dances does not follow the libretto. I am not sure that the vocalisation of “Mambo” was necessary here but the arrangement is perfectly clear, so that the listener can hear a considerable amount of the musical detail. This two-piano version of the Symphonic Dances was created by the American pianist and composer John Musto.

George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody (1931) is rarely heard these days. (The Arkiv catalogue shows 26 recordings against 210 for the Rhapsody in Blue and 74 for the Piano Concerto in F.) It has its genesis in the score for the film Delicious, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The somewhat fanciful plot centres around a Scottish girl who arrives in the USA. She has legal issues, goes on the run and finally teams up with some travelling musicians. George Gershwin wrote several songs and two musical sequences for the film. One of the latter, originally titled Manhattan Rhapsody, was designed to accompany the girl on her wanderings in the unfamiliar and possibly scary city of New York.

Gershwin regarded the Second Rhapsody as “the finest thing he had written”. Listening to it uncovers a subtler, more nuanced style of writing. That said, the American music historian David Ewen felt that the main reason that this “piece has not gained the popularity of the Rhapsody in Blue, was that while it represents a decided advance in technique, it is mainly contrived, where the first rhapsody [in Blue] was inspired”. The piece has several versions of the original orchestral incarnation. This performance for four hands on one piano was devised by one of the pianists, Julian Jacobson. It is absorbing and enjoyable, and it amply reveals “its subtleties and creative development”.

Gershwin was inspired to compose his orchestral tone poem An American in Paris (1928) after a visit to the French capital in the mid-1920s. The piece works well in Julian Jacobson’s  transcription, another for four hands and one piano. Each of the three contrasting sections suggests aspects of Paris’s streetscape, past and present. This is an attractive and satisfying performance, from the taxi horns and the slightly frenetic exploration of the city, through a relaxed stroll in one of the great parks, to the consummation of the American visitor’s diverse moods.

The 1951 film An American in Paris has long been one of my favourite “flicks”. Starring the great Gene Kelly, the first appearance of Leslie Caron and the irrepressible polymath Oscar Levant, this sparkling movie presents a remarkable score featuring Gershwin’s music. The climax of the film is the 17-minute ballet sequence danced to the eponymous tone poem.

The final work on this CD is Henry Levine’s 1943 transcription of Gershwin’s best known concert piece, Rhapsody in Blue. This early crossover between jazz and the classical/romantic repertoire was premiered in February 1924. The original with jazz band has seen various arrangements, including Ferde Grofé’s orchestration and several versions for piano solo or piano duet. No need to talk about this well-known masterpiece, save that Levine’s arrangement makes crystal clear the continuous outpouring of melody, piano figurations and jazz-inspired clichés. All the excitement, pizzazz and romance of the original score are retained, and often enhanced, in this exemplary recital.

Enough said: great playing by Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown, excellent liner notes, and a splendid recording.

John France



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