Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


George GERSHWIN Rhapsody in Blue; Concerto in F; An American in Paris André Previn (piano) and conducting the London Symphony Orchestra EMI CDM5 66891 2  


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I have always loved this recording and I welcome it back to the catalogue most warmly. This fabulous recording was first released in 1971. It is one of the first releases in EMI's new series, "Great Recordings of the Century" - and these performances certainly qualify for that superlative. The collection is superbly produced and engineered by the renowned team of Christopher Bishop and Christopher Parker, and it features André Previn at peak form in the days when he was in London producing such classic recordings as his critically acclaimed cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, his complete Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony, and a blistering Walton 1st Symphony that is still the yardstick when judging rival versions. This, for me, is the way to play Gershwin. The slightly understated Gramophone criticism, of the day, said: "...the disc has great virtues...Previn plays well, as you would expect, and there is virtuoso playing from the LSO..." The CD booklet notes are in the form of an appreciation of these performances by Brian Morton and it is worth quoting a salient paragraph -

"...Even the most sceptical of critics is prepared, at least, to pay lip service to the American's genius, even if only as a 'popular' composer. What Gershwin certainly is, however, is badly performed. The concert works require a touch that is not within the orthodox canon. Chords are not there to be played whole and uncoloured, but broken. There should be ambiguities in the tonality, hung notes, phrases splayed athwart the pulse. There should be no right angles, no straight edges." (The bold italics are mine to emphasise this point).

Previn, with his versatile background of jazz, show business and film music, as well as conventional concert music, was the ideal interpreter of Gershwin bringing a freshness, spontaneity and above all a sparkling joie de vivre to these interpretations. Just listen to the opening of the Rhapsody in Blue, for instance: the sheer joy of the clarinet's wail complete with the cheeky little twist in its tail, is counterbalanced by emphatic timpani and a really saucy answering call from the trumpet played "in the hat". Previn convinces the London Symphony Orchestra to play as if they were born to the jazz idiom and they play their hearts out for him giving him, as the Gramophone critic says, virtuoso performances. The big tune of the Rhapsody that everybody remembers seems to take on an extra dimension under Previn. I cannot ever before recall being reminded of that bitter sweet feeling or a yearning - almost a mourning - for lost times - that feeling that Delius captured in his Paris.

As for An American in Paris, well, for me, this performance is the one. You might have to listen for a lifetime to hear a better performance than this. This American... is delighted to be in Paris, for him Spring is in the air. (In some other readings I get the impression it is Autumn.) Again there is that attractive devil-may-care spirit, the deliciously vulgar, witty turns of phrase. The big romantic tune first appears with a sardonic edge, its cynical, world-weary - the sort of picture you might imagine of a know-it-all, seen-everything-before Yank before he succumbs to the charm of the capital of romance. (But see what Gershwin, himself, said of his idea of what the American was doing in Paris in my review of the Michael Tilson Thomas recording below.)

Of the Piano Concerto it is worth quoting Morton again..." Consider the extraordinary opening... In most performances it is presented like a portal to some grand classical statement, shiny and unblemished, faux-Corinthian. Previn approaches it with sympathetic freshness. It's immediately clear that this language is modern American, and far from 'classical'. Even the familiar contention between soloist and ensemble has a different function here. The piano not only plays within and against the group, but also across its angles.. the magnificent trumpet passage in the slow middle section, played here by Howard Snell, has an edge of raw intensity, alluding to the spirit of the blues without using blues intervals in a remotely orthodox way..." My comments in the preceding paragraphs apply equally well to Previn's view of the Concerto. He penetrates to the very soul of this brilliant music - so often associated with the brash vivacity, and the sentimentality of New York. In the outer movements, he propels the music so that it bounces along strongly; his reading is crisp but articulate Listen how movingly he shapes the lovely soulful melody at about 6:00 in the first movement. As for his performance of the lovely Adagio - Andante con moto second movement; it is a revelation, a complete joy: the sympathetic playing of the LSO is sublime and Previn's cadenza is a study in hushed concentration and acute sensitivity.

A classic recording that must be in every Gershwin lovers library

Ian Lace

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