The Simon Rattle Jazz Album
This can hardly fail, can it? The quality, range and sheer generosity of the programme (some 73 1/2 minutes), plus the line-up of star performers, bids fair to make it a bestseller; and the cover-photo of Simon Rattle sporting dicky bow and keyboard-patterned braces should make that a certainty. Play the record good and loud (the LP sounds best at slightly above normal volume level); if your neighbours hear it I reckon they are more likely to come round and join you than to bang on the walls.
Milhaud's La creation du monde is in fact a deceptively restrained opener—deceptive because a performance which does not convey a sense of the passion being restrained can make it seem merely lethargic. The London Sinfonietta, with the brilliant John Harle to the fore, catch its languid, steamy atmosphere to perfection.
Then there is the Rhapsody in Blue in the original jazz-band orchestration (as it is in the listed comparison from CBS). There is rather less abandon here than from Michael Tilson Thomas, and on the whole that is no bad thing. In moderating their adherence to the composer's tempos (as heard on his piano-roll recording) Rattle's men steer clear of the Tom-and-Jerry-style parody sometimes brought to mind in the Los Angeles performance, and the solo part is more effective with Peter Donohoe's occasional raised eyebrow in the later stages than with Tilson Thomas's constant nudge-bar (Donohoe is also the more articulate player in virtuosic passages). To be honest, I wouldn't have minded a touch more loose-limbed freedom in the early stages—the clarinet solo does sound rather like a 'straight man' stepping out of character, whereas the Los Angeles player is too far over the top—and I am not sure the saxophone chorus should overwhelm the piano as it does here. Perhaps the whole thing would have benefited from one more take just for the hell of it. But once it cuts loose (as early as fig. 6, in fact) the performance is for the most part foot-tappingly irresistible—incidentally it includes four rather effective bars before the first animato which are not in the Los Angeles recording or in my score (of the symphony orchestra version).
In the other jazz classics similar comments apply. Michael Collins is a more classically-minded player than his counterpart in the so-called Columbia Jazz Combo, but Rattle obtains playing at least as crisp and characterful as do the composers. The Ebony Concerto is so consistently fascinating in its sheer sound (a clearer harp, and more realistic balance than on the CBS reissue) that suspicions of cynicism, as voiced by Max Harrison in the sleeve-note, evaporate. Curious that the trumpets, unless my ears deceive me, attempt neither the lip slurs nor the flutter-tonguing in the last movement—the latter at least is as clear as day on Stravinsky's own recording, but if it cannot be done discreetly maybe it is the composer's miscalculation.
For fill-ups Rattle has chosen some mouthwatering orchestrations made for the Paul Whiteman Band (who, of course, commissioned and premiered Gershwin's Rhapsody). These include the deliciously suggestive
Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue and Riffs is a super sleaze-up conclusion. For a personal choice I might have gone instead for Antheil's Jazz Symphony—pure Maxwell Davies in 1925. But then so many tempting prospects beckon—Rattle has hardly touched on Weill or Copland yet, and Peter Donohoe plays a mean Gershwin Concerto; if this album enjoys the success it deserves, it should not be too much to ask for EMI and Rattle to consider a follow-up.'