GERSHWIN Piano Concerto. An American in Paris. Rhapsody in Blue

Author: 
Jed Distler

GERSHWIN Piano Concerto. An American in Paris. Rhapsody in Blue

Steven Richman is to Gershwin as Charles Mackerras was to Janáček. For years he has tirelessly worked to free the composer’s scores from accumulated bad habits and spurious editing in pursuit of authenticity and musical sense. I’m sure this extends to his new Gershwin release’s close-up, slightly dry yet judiciously balanced sound, which is aesthetically akin to the best-sounding orchestral radio airchecks from the 1930s and ’40s. In his vivacious and deliciously characterised reading of An American in Paris, Richman restores Gershwin’s original saxophone parts and other details that have got lost in the shuffle for nearly 90 years.

The Concerto in F hasn’t sounded so fresh, so idiomatic and so rhythmically alive since Earl Wild’s classic RCA recording, no small thanks to piano soloist Lincoln Mayorga’s ability to fuse his brilliant classical technique with a genuine feeling for Gershwin’s syncopated language and bluesy inflections. Richman also presents the first studio recordings of Louis Katzman’s zesty arrangement of the Of Thee I Sing Overture as originally broadcast in 1934 (it’s lighter and shorter than Robert Russell Bennett’s familiar version) and the Three Preludes in Roy Bargy’s tasteful orchestrations. No Gershwin fan should miss this disc.

By contrast, the performances by Mark Bebbington and Leon Botstein reek of accumulated ‘tradition’, particularly in their bloated, pretentious treatment of Rhapsody in Blue. It’s not so much a matter of slow tempi (the positively glacial E major theme, for instance) as it is the performance’s overall inertia and lack of direction. The ritards at ends of sections, the micromanaged phrasings and other expressive notions frequently cause the music to stop dead in its tracks. Occasionally Bebbington tosses off flashy passagework directly and exuberantly, yet at other times he falls prey to cutesy diminuendos and prissily clipped articulation (at 2'44", for example, where the delicious scherzando-like writing deflates and dies on the vine). As for the I Got Rhythm Variations, the stiffly phrased, under-tempo and heavy-handed main theme alone warrants a new title: ‘I got no rhythm’.

The Concerto fares better: the outer movements’ tempi fall within conventional parameters, and Bebbington’s expressive leeway in unaccompanied passages befits the music’s nature. While the second movement’s first theme can accommodate Botstein’s protracted tempo (thanks in part to the Royal Philharmonic’s exceptional yet unidentified first-desk trumpet soloist), things turn overly precious and mincing when the piano enters. A bonus disc offers all eight Gershwin Preludes: the aforementioned three in their original piano versions, plus five posthumously published items. Bebbington plays these pieces simply and sensitively, freed at last from the orchestral crush.

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