The Gershwin Moment
If most of Gershwin may be said to have entered the musical DNA of the United States almost as soon as the ink dried on the page, his music nevertheless has profited by recent scholarly scrutiny. Perhaps the most important cache of Gershwin materials, held at the Library of Congress, has revealed the extent to which Gershwin’s original voice was blunted and tamed down in order to conform to what his well-meaning publishers considered ‘acceptable’. The first-ever critical edition of the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin is now under way at the University of Michigan and a number of recordings, reflecting new attitudes towards the composer, including those of Steven Richman and Harmonie Ensemble/New York, have begun to appear. In terms of imaginative realisation, edgy stylishness and sheer opulence of sound, none outclass, in my opinion, this extraordinary new release by Kirill Gerstein with the St Louis Symphony under David Robertson, along with other artists.
Gerstein needs no introduction, but it may be worth recalling that he moved from his native Voronezh to Boston on a jazz scholarship when he was 14. What he serves up here is living, breathing Gershwin that doesn’t shy from improvisation and yet retains all the crystal clarity and architectural cohesion of his interpretations of Liszt and Brahms. The result is sizzlin’, sassy and smooth, and Robertson and his St Louis musicians are there every spontaneous step of the way. Both the Concerto and the Rhapsody in Blue are tours de force, and easily claim a place among the great readings, be they by Levant, Sanromá, Wild or Gershwin himself.
Of the smaller things, Levant’s ‘Blame it on my youth’ with vibraphonist Gary Burton is the occasion for some intimate music-making of touching simplicity. The highest compliment payable to Storm Large’s sultry delivery of Strawberry Woman’s ‘Summertime’, redolent of the style of Billie Holiday, may be that she sings it as well as any white woman I know. Meanwhile, Gerstein pulls off the Wild transcriptions, which have become quite fashionable, like nobody else.
Gerstein’s music-making is direct from the heart, unsentimental but rich in sentiment. It’s also a bullseye evocation of that unique era of the 1920s and ’30s, with its blend of hedonism and hope at the edge of an abyss. And if something in the Mozartian grace and elegance of the Concerto’s finale doesn’t touch your heart, you may want to consult a cardiologist.