Gershwin Plays Gershwin
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Gershwin,G. ~ Rhaps Blue (2 Versions)/Americ
The first of these two discs gathers all Gershwin's commercially issued discs as a pianist, including the two abridged Rhapsody in Blue traversals, Gershwin accompanying the Astaire siblings, and twelve solo sides. Hearing the composer play his own music is like getting your ears cleaned out from 75 years of interpretive maulings. Gershwin's crisp touch, clear-cut and unsentimental phrasing, and rhythmic verve comes through more convincingly in these flat discs than in his much-vaunted piano rolls. Also included are the composer-supervised first recordings of An American in Paris and selections from Porgy & Bess, along with a flawed yet revelatory aircheck of Gershwin playing the finale of his concerto. No Gershwin lover should be without this important collection. --Jed Distler
Top Customer Reviews
This 2-disc Pearl CD set, as Amazon editorial reviewer Jed Distler points out, is an essential purchase for anyone who loves Gershwin's music. Pearl adheres to an "as is" philosophy of transferring old 78 rpm records to CD. This results in very immediate sound, but a lot of shellac noise comes along with it. With a little twiddling of your treble knob, these performances are very listenable and thoroughly enjoyable.
To my mind, just about everything here falls into the category of "definitive" performance. The 1924 Rhapsody In Blue has more joy and exhilaration than any other recording made (and Gershwin's piano playing is heard more clearly than in the 1927 electrical re-make, fine as it is). It was recorded just four months after the world premiere at Aeolian Hall in New York City. What an event that must have been! The audience included such luminaries as Rachmaninov, Kreisler & Sousa. When the performance was finished, the audience roared its approval with a standing ovation that lasted 20 MINUTES!
The songs with Fred Astaire and his sister Adele are utterly delightful, and Gershwin's solo piano playing strikes me as a far truer representation of his art than his notoriously unreliable piano rolls available elsewhere. "An American in Paris," conducted by Gershwin's boyhood chum Nathaniel Shilkret, is irresistable (Gershwin even plays the small parts for piano & celesta, and the car horns he brought back from Paris are used here).
The original 1935 "Porgy and Bess" excerpts, conducted by Alexander Smallens, are wonderful. Jepson is excellent, but the real star here is Lawrence Tibbett, to my taste the greatest operatic baritone America has ever produced. His enormous charm is complemented by fabulous diction - he's one of the very few "classical" singers whose every word is clearly understandable.
Gershwin never recorded a complete Concerto in F. For the best-ever version of that, you have to buy the Roy Bargas/Bix Beiderbecke/Paul Whiteman account on a Pearl CD called "Gershwin and Grofe," which also has the first-ever recordings of Grofe's Grand Canyon & Mississippi Suites (a lot of fun!). But here we get to hear the ONLY CD account of Gershwin himself playing just the 2nd mvt. from a 1933 Rudy Valle Show radio broadcast. It's fascinating and frustrating at the same time: a tantalizing fragment of what must have been a glorious interpretation.
The Concerto in F excerpt is UNIQUE to this CD - which makes it a MANDATORY purchase for Gershwin lovers. The Rhapsody (both versions), American in Paris, and the Porgy selections are also on Sony's "Historic Gershwin Recordings" in somewhat smoother transfers. The aforementioned Whiteman-conducted Concerto in F is also on a Sony CD called "From Gershwin's Time" (sadly, it's out of print - see my review).
CDs seem to have an alarmingly short shelf life these days, so grab this wonderful set while it's still available.
Very Highly Recommended.
Although one is disappointed with the cuts in the familiar "Rhapsody in Blue," what did make it onto the original disc is quite remarkable. It certainly gives the first clear indication of Gershwin's brilliant piano playing. No one would ever play Gershwin's music with more enthusiasm and ability than the composer himself. The Whiteman orchestra plays Ferde Grofe's original arrangement and gives a clear indication of what the February 1924 premiere must have sounded like, even if the sonics are somewhat limited by the acoustical process. Only three years later Victor reunited the same musicians with Gershwin for an electrical recording, using the same cuts.
Gershwin's numerous piano solos, sometimes including his friends Fred and Adele Astaire (who had introduced some of the Gershwin songs in his musical comedies), are amazing. His virtuoso piano playing astonishes us and, for the most part, the sound on these early electrical recordings is quite good. A single microphone was usually placed close to the grand piano, picking up the best possible sound of that time.
The world premiere recording of "An American in Paris" was made in 1929 for RCA Victor, using a hand-picked orchestra that was conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret, Victor's longtime musical director. Gershwin was on hand, supposedly to supervise the recording of the complete score, but he reportedly "got in the way" and was asked to leave the recording studio. Then it was recognized that there was no one on hand to play the celesta solo, so Gershwin was asked to return and play the brief but impressive passage that adds to the magical moments of this innovative score. Also included were the original Paris taxi horns that Gershwin had brought back with him in 1928 for the first performance.
Alexander Smallens conducted Metropolitan Opera stars Helen Jepson and Lawrence Tibbett and a professional orchestra in excerpts from Gershwin's latest musical triumph, "Porgy and Bess." Although the folk opera had not yet achieved its later great success, many recognized the innovations of this score and RCA Victor asked Gershwin to supervise the recording of some of the important songs from his opera in 1935. While some may question the use of white singers to sing in Negro dialect, particularly when the first performances used a mostly black cast, not even the Metropolitan Opera used black singers until 1955 when Marian Anderson made her long-awaited debut in Verdi's "A Masked Ball."
Finally, there is a tantalizing excerpt from the "Concerto in F" in a special arrangement for Rudy Vallee's radio program on NBC. Gershwin occasionally appeared on radio programs, even hosting his own 15-minute show in the early 1930's, and this is one of the few surviving examples of how Gershwin could dazzle both the studio audience and the millions tuning in on their radios. It is a wonderful moment.
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