I encountered this incredible bargain when I visited a local record store
recently. My eyes nearly popped out of my head - four CDs of first rate Gershwin
for just under £10 that's about two thirds the cost of one full price
CD!. This collection is of recordings, beautifully refurbished, made in London
and New York in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Here is some idea of the mouth-watering
CD 1 begins with the Rodney Greenberg recommended (in his Phaidon
book, George Gershwin) performance of Rhapsody in Blue (recorded in
1924) with Oscar Levant and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Levant, a brilliant pianist, was a great friend of Gershwin and a great performer
of his music. Levant's mordant wit and lugubrious wisecrackings are felt
in his refreshingly unsentimental, rather droll interpretation of the Rhapsody.
Listening to his rapid-fire quicksilver playing, he seems to inject many
extra notes into the work and you could swear that there were more than two
hands at work here. He is ably supported by an equally mordant but highly
colourful accompaniment from Ormandy. Just listen to that waspish long-held
Levant and Ormandy also collaborate in a recording of the Concerto in F (recorded
in 1925). Again they convey a world-weary cynicism, a hard-boiled yet not
unattractive view of the exciting urban pulse that is New York. Again in
the sparkling outer movements, Levant's playing is risky and breathlessly
exciting; the orchestra more concerned with the softer more romantic elements.
The Andante is very interesting. This time the nocturne starts as though
narrated by a man-about-town; it's a tougher view than the norm. One might
then imagine the city waking up at dawn, the violin solo has a steely ring,
the trumpet reveille is a no-nonsense call to work. Then sentimentality and
nostalgia win and the tone softens and the music is that more affecting because
of what has gone before.
George Gershwin is heard playing his own three Preludes in his own inimitable
style; it is as though he is improvising them for they have such freshness
and spontaneity. Prelude No.1 is a tango powered tour-de-force, Prelude No.
2 is a wistful blues-based nocturne while Prelude 3 is an up-beat, fast tempoed
Gershwin, himself, plays the celeste, in a wonderfully vibrant and amusing
1928 recording of An American in Paris with the Victor Symphony Orchestra
under Nat Shilkret. It is perky, alert, confident, delightfully cheeky and
full of telling characterisation. This American is really homesick but he
is jolted awake by the appearance of a particularly coy and appealing Parisienne
who absolutely exudes jungle allure. The percussion here are prominent as
if to suggest his excited, thumping heart.
The CD concludes with the Cuban Overture - a colourful evocation of a sultry
night's entertainment in Havana by Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra
with Rosa Linda (piano) recorded in 1932.
CD 2 is a compilation of 25 songs recorded between 1922 and 1945 all
charmingly rendered in the styles of their periods. All are pearls. I would
just mention a few. The laid-back Mr BingCrosby crooning "Somebody Loves
Me"; George Gershwin, himself playing "Fascinating Rhythm" to accompany Fred
and Adele Astaire; Sophie Tucker's assertive rendition of "The Man I Love";
the extraordinary, inimitable and enormously expressive Whispering Jack Smith
singing "Clap Yo' Hands"; Gershwin playing "Someone to Watch Over Me" and
"S'Wonderful"; Peggy Lee wondering "How Long Has this Been Going On?"; Judy
Garland's radiant singing of "Embraceable You"; and Fred Astaire's wonderful,
own way with "They All Laughed", "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "Nice
Work if You Can Get It."
CD3 is devoted to the Gershwin of the Jazz bands with recordings made
between 1928 and 1937.
It opens with a shortened version of the Rhapsody in Blue without
piano. It is a hoot! 'Totally irreverent and incredibly cheeky and blowsy
in the wild style of the 1920s. In short it is hysterical and bloody marvellous.
Again we have 25 tracks; most of them little gems. To mention just a few:
Fletcher Henderson swinging "Somebody Loves Me" and "Liza", the latter very
joyously and infectiously; then Art Tatum (piano) plays "Liza" in contrasting
poetic, dreamy mode before he too races off with it at a breathless pace.
The incomparable Fats Waller really goes for it in "I Got Rhythm" and Benny
Goodman's Trio relaxes with "Lady Be Good"; The Inkspots sharply realise
the rhythm of "Slap that Bass" - mmm, mmm, mmmm; zoom, zoom, zoom; and Tommy
Dorsey's ringing and delightfully strident brass sound out "They All Laughed"
while Billy Holiday and her orchestra "They Can't Take That Away from Me".
CD4 takes Gershwin and the jazz bands from 1939 up to 1947. I would
single out from these 25 tracks: Doris Rhodes singing the slightly risqué
"Lorelei" with the Joe Sullivan Septet; "The Man I Love" played by the Quintette
of the Hot Club of France featuring Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt;
Louis Armstrong with that golden trumpet and that gravelly voice in his rendition
of "Love Walked In"; The Benny Goodman quartet - wonderful in guess what
- "S'Wonderful"; Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian going wild Hawaiian style
for "I Got Rhythm"; and the Art Tatum Trio hotting up and racing away with
The debit side is that there are no notes to speak of; just track listing
and dates and locations of recordings. But who cares? What does it matter?
Notes are widely available elsewhere.
Verdict: rush, rush out and buy this one before all the copies are snapped