George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
The First Recordings
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC637 [73:58 + 76:50]
This fascinating Gershwin twofer collates all the premiere recordings of his concert and opera works. In addition to those on which he plays, a number of others were recorded during his lifetime.
Given the nature of the discography you must expect, and you will duly receive, multiple recordings of Rhapsody in Blue, all in Grofe’s band version and all cut by a third, to allow the recordings to be released on two sides of a 78. The alternative would have been to extend to a third side and add a filler on the fourth, something that wasn’t really a commercial prospect at the time.
In order, then, there’s the 1924 late acoustic version with Gershwin accompanied by Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra, recorded four months after its famous premiere in Aeolian Hall, and sounding excellent in this transfer. Ross Gorman’s epochal improvised opening clarinet passage earned acclaim and he reprises it here with – I think – Henry Busse’s cornet lead and both are heard to advantage: they’d also both been in The Virginians, a good small band, and had already had plenty of experience in recording studios. Quite a lot of detail is audible here, not least Gershwin’s own vitalising playing, the muted trombone passage and the alto sax line – maybe someone can tell me if Gorman doubled on alto in this recording, as he was a prodigious multi-instrumentalist and frequently played alto for Whiteman. The premiere performance featured a band of 23, almost double the number Whiteman had been using a few years before, and a sign of the larger aggregation to come. I assume most, though not perhaps all, were in the studio though the violins do sound deficient in the balance.
As a bonus there’s an alternative take of the second side, mistakenly issued in the 1940s when it was coupled with the electrically made remake, which follows next in the programme. Here Gershwin was again accompanied by the Whiteman band but this time Nathaniel Shilkret conducts, apparently because of a row between Gershwin and The King of Jazz. This is a slightly faster performance and sounds more bedded down, technically. It’s slicker and smoother and lacks the tangy immediacy of the acoustic recording, where one can still hear the Larry Shields influence on Gorman’s playing – the laughing clarinet - in a way that isn’t apparent in the remake. If it is Gorman playing in this electrical performance, he has slightly lost the impetuous bravado of that earlier recording. What this recording does offer is a much-improved sound spectrum, the full range of the orchestra, not least its complement of strings, and the arresting wind playing. More sectional discipline affords a greater sophistication; the rhythms aren’t as jerky as in 1924. It’s great to have both to allow analysis of these and other contrasts.
There are two more recordings of the work to note. The first is Oscar Levant’s 1927 Brunswick recording with Frank Black and his Orchestra. Black was a big name for years on America’s broadcasting networks. Note, too, that this recording does not appear in the recent Sony box set devoted to Levant, invariably a fascinating performer, and then only 21. The rumour has always been that the original (unnamed) soloist had gone on a bender and Levant hurriedly filled in, but I don’t know whether this is a tall tale or not. In any case he plays the truncated version with rather more freedom than he was sometimes allowed by the big-name maestri who mistakenly performed the work (Toscanini was probably the worst culprit) but of course other examples of Levant’s way with it do exist. Stick your ears close to your speakers for the beginning of the work where either Black or the session’s producer clearly warns the players to get ready with a brisk preparatory ‘All right’. Pity about the rather longhair too-straight clarinet playing. The final Rhapsody is unexpected, at least to me, and features the team of Mischa Spoliansky and Julian Fuhs and his Symphony Orchestra. Spoliansky was at the height of his early fame as a cabaret and review composer whilst Fuhs was a jazz pianist and bandleader. Together they summon up a downright sleazy Weimar milieu, the opening clarinet solo smearing nicely, and Spoliansky proving a fine, apt soloist. It’s also the speediest of the recordings included.
There’s one more Rhapsody to note, the piano solo rendered as a two-and-half-minute ‘Andante’ and played by Gershwin in a London session as a filler to his scintillating performance of the Three Preludes, another famous 1928 recording. No wonder Heifetz arranged the three for violin. It’s often puzzled me why Samuel Dushkin recorded Short Story in London in February 1928. The rest of the repertoire that he and pianist Max Pirani recorded was by Albeniz, Debussy, Paradis and Pierne and Gershwin sits rather oddly in that company but I’m glad he did record it. He wasn’t only ‘the Stravinsky violinist’. The Concerto in F is in the hands of Roy Bargy, the Whiteman band’s solo pianist, with the orchestra conducted here by William Daly because the esteemed Whiteman had trouble conducting the work’s rhythms. As we know from performances of music by Leo Sowerby and others, Whiteman often went one way and his band quite another. Daly was a friend of Gershwin’s and here the Grofe orchestration is employed, not the symphonic version and there are cuts in the last two movements. Bargy was a great Gershwin player. He is up to tempo in the opening passage and plays with that same sang-froid feel that Gershwin did; nonchalant and assured. His rhythms are tight and he is a real star of the show. But the changes of instrumentation, which one must accept in the circumstances, do tend to destabilise melody lines, which are taken by winds as often as not – infuriating, as Whiteman had a superb violin section with Matty Malneck prominent among them - and there’s a strange tension generated between the crisp and stylistically idiomatic Bargy and the pseudo-Rhapsody in Blue Grofe instrumentation. Still, stick with it and you’ll hear Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet solo at the start of the second movement and a lovely violin solo from, I think, Kurt Dieterle. The personnel for this recording is well-known to jazzers and non-jazzers alike; four trumpets, four trombones (including Bix’s good pal, Bill Rank), six saxes, including Bix’s best pal in the band, Frank Trumbauer, the inventor of the Cool School on his C melody sax, and six violins - amongst others.
An American in Paris, with Gershwin playing the celesta with the Victor Symphony directed by Shilkret, features those famous Parisian taxi horns that the composer had brought home with him. There are some sassy soloists in the Victor band, and this is an evocative performance, one that Gershwin himself must have endorsed.
Bargy returns for the Second Rhapsody (Whiteman conducting in 1938, the year after Gershwin’s death). It, too, is cut by a third. It’s one of my least favourite Gershwin works but I will always stick around to hear Bargy’s fleet, aerial no-nonsense pianism. That same year there was another tribute in the form of the Cuban Overture. The work had been premiered by none other than Albert Coates, but this recording is another arrangement, this time for piano and Whiteman’s concert band. The Cuban Overture is a fascinating what-if in Gershwin’s musical development. He originally called it Rumba and one could have foreseen all manner of Latin-symphonic developments ahead had he lived. Well though Rosa Linda plays, this particular version is a disappointing quasi-concertante attempt to milk Rhapsody in Blue once again and its embedded long piano solo is a threadbare excuse. Worth hearing, but once only. Oscar Levant reappears in 1949 to play the ‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations with Morton Gould and His Orchestra, in splendidly nourishing and up-front 1949 sound. Ex-NBC staffer Earl Wild wasn’t the only one who could do this sort of legerdemain stuff.
The 1935 selections from Porgy and Bess which feature Helen Jepson and Lawrence Tibbett are justly famous and have been reissued a number of times. Alexander Smallens conducts with the exception of one side, which is directed by Shilkret. Naxos reissued these selections [8.110219-20] alongside a raft of other contemporary performances by such as Paul Robeson, added the Heifetz Porgy transcriptions, and the Symphonic Picture that Robert Russell Bennett arranged. Valuably, it added the 1940-42 original cast set conducted by Smallens, and added other recordings made between 1935-42 by other original cast members.
This release offers a compendium of foundational Gershwin recordings. It also, therefore, offers a lot of Gershwin playing Gershwin. If you recoil at so many iterations of Rhapsody in Blue, it would be reasonable to point out that each only lasts nine minutes and represents a rather different staging post of the work, however truncated and fallible. I seldom write at such length when reviewing so this means that I have enjoyed the selections, admired Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfer excellence, and wholeheartedly approved of this excellent twofer.
Rhapsody in Blue (acoustic version) (1924) [9:20] Side 2 alternative take [4:46]
George Gershwin (piano)/Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra/Paul Whiteman
rec. 10 June 1924, New York City
Rhapsody in Blue (electric version) (1924) [8:53]
George Gershwin (piano)/Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra/Nathaniel Shilkret
rec. 21 April 1927, Liederkranz Hall, New York City
Rhapsody in Blue; solo piano andante (1924) [2:38]
George Gershwin (piano)
rec. 8 June 1928, London
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [9:24]
Oscar Levant (piano)/Frank Black and His Orchestra/Frank Black
rec. 2 December 1927, New York City
Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [8:22]
Mischa Spoliansky (piano)/Julian Fuhs’ Symphony Orchestra/Julian Fuhs
rec. 20 September 1927, Berlin
Three Preludes (1926) [5:12]
George Gershwin (piano)
rec. 8 June 1928, London
Short Story (1925) [3:03]
Samuel Dushkin (violin): Max Pirani (piano)
rec. 10 February 1928 in Studio B, Hayes, Middlesex
Concerto in F (1925) [23:47]
Roy Bargy (piano)/Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra/William Daly
rec.15 and 17 September and 5 October 1928, New York City
An American in Paris (1928) [16:18]
George Gershwin (celesta)/Victor Symphony Orchestra/Nathaniel Shilkret
rec. 4 February 1929, Liederkranz Hall, New York City
Second Rhapsody (1931) [8:48]
Roy Bargy (piano)/Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra/Paul Whiteman
rec. 23 October 1938, New York City
Cuban Overture (1932) arr Small for piano and orch (1938) [12:45]
Rosa Linda (piano)/Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra/Paul Whiteman
rec. 21 October 1938, New York City
Porgy and Bess (selections) (1935)
Act I: Lullaby (Summertime) [2:33]: Act I: Summertime and Crap Game; A woman is a sometime thing [3:20]: Act I: My man’s gone now [4:13]: Act II: I got plenty o’ nuttin’ [3:09]: Act II: The Buzzard Song [3:54]: Act II: Bess, you is my woman now [5:00]: Act II: It ain’t necessarily so [3:05]: Act III: Oh, Bess, oh where’s my Bess? [3:11]
rec. October 1935 in RCA Studio No. 2, New York City
Helen Jepson (soprano): Lawrence Tibbett (baritone): Orchestra and Chorus/Alexander Smallens and Nathaniel Shilkret (My man’s gone now): Recordings supervised by the composer
“I Got Rhythm” Variations (1934) [9:03]
Oscar Levant (piano)/Morton Gould and His Orchestra/Morton Gould
rec. 6 July 1949, Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City