INKPOT CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: THE COMPLETE GERSHWIN (VoxBox)

The Complete GershwinPiano Concerto in F
Lullaby for String Orchestra
Cuban Overture
Second Rhapsody
Promenade
Rhapsody in Blue
“I Got Rhythm” Variations
Catfish Row (Suite from Porgy and Bess)
An American in Paris

Jeffrey Siegel piano
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra · conducted by Leonard Slatkin

VOXBOX CDX 5007
2 discs [140’39”] budget-price

by Isaak Koh

Itttttttt’s GERSHWIN YEAR !!!!!!!

Mr. George GershwinGEORGE GERSHWIN (left) is what you might call an “in-betweener”. His musical style, though distinctively his own, did not fit into comfortable categories. He made his living writing for the theatre and the concert hall, and all of his works reflect the influence of American popular song at the beginning of this century very strongly. His position in the music world could be compared to Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber today. That is not to say that his musical training was not rooted in the classics. Gershwin is above all an American composer, and his much-celebrated works show the importance of the dominant music of his time, that is, American “jazz”.

This two-disc set is titled “The Complete Gershwin” and it does contain his most important compositions for orchestra. The work he is most well-known for, Rhapsody in Blue, opens the second disc, and what a fabulous version this is. From the unique clarinet swoop to the extremely catchy piano riff, this recording is mesmerising for start to end. Jeffrey Siegel plays with the appropriate swing and injects a satisfying level of fun into the work. The St. Louis musicians under the baton of Slatkin accompany Siegel beautifully. This is followed by the astonishing diverse “I Got Rhythm” Variations, showcasing both Gershwin’s ability to write a “theme and variations” work and Siegel’s rock-solid pianism.

The Porgy and Bess suite here is not the standard suite, but one arranged by Gershwin himself in 1936. Lost until 1958, it was named Catfish Row to differentiate it from the earlier selection. The five parts of this suite includes the popular tunes “Summertime” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin'”. The orchestra pull this off very well, just as they successfully convey the homesickness in the rhapsodic ballet An American in Paris.

'George in an Imaginary Concert Hall' by David Siqueiros It was the wide-ranging impact that Rhapsody in Blue made on the American music world that inspired Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Society, to ask Gershwin for a full piano concerto. The resultant Piano Concerto in F, although recognizable as one, has all the Gershwin musical fingerprints of swinging melodies and jazz-inspired instrumentation. The recording here is in very realistic sound, although some of the instruments are closely miked (to increase surprise value, no doubt).

Gershwin composed another rhapsody in 1931, developing musical ideas from his score for the film Delicious. Simply titled Second Rhapsody, it does not possess the attractive quality of the first, but it is still interesting Gershwin nonetheless. The following year, Gershwin returned from a trip to Havana intrigued by the musical instruments he saw there. Out of this excursion emerged the Cuban Overture, another colorful example of Gershwin’s flexibility as a composer. Slatkin and company play these works refreshingly, conveying their inherent zest.

This delightful set also includes the earliest and the last works of this American genius. Lullaby for string quartet was Gershwin’s first serious work, and has remained popular throughout his lifetime. The version here is the one arranged for string orchestra. One of the last films he worked on was Shall We Dance, and one of the sections was later published as Promenade. It was Gershwin’s last instrumental work before he died from a brain tumor in July 1937.

This collection of George Gershwin’s orchestral music is an embarrassment of riches. Not only does it succinctly present the compositional talents, the music is performed at a consistently high level. Slatkin and the St. Louis players obviously have the American idiom in them, and I daresay you will not find another similar set at such excellent quality (both performance and sonics) at such an low price. If you are even remotely interested in Gershwin or American music, grab this set when you see it!

This disc is available at (or can be ordered from) Tower Records (Pacific Plaza) and HMV (The Heeren).

Isaak Koh can’t stop shuffling to the swinging tunes of Gershwin.

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p.1997; up.13.9.98

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