Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (CD review)

Also, An American in Paris; Porgy and Bess suite; Gould: Latin-American Symphonette. Leonard Pennario, piano; Felix Slatkin, Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 06691 4.

First, a word about available recordings. While these re-released EMI performances have been around for quite some time and have established a strong following, I would not deem them first-choice recommendations in any of the works involved. For top honors, I would still consider Bernstein (Sony), Fiedler (RCA), Previn (EMI and Philips), and Tilson Thomas (Sony and RCA) the leading exponents of this music. That said, maestro Felix Slatkin, pianist Leonard Pennario, and the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra do considerable justice to the music of George Gershwin (1898-1937) and Morton Gould (1913-1996).

Things begin with Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924), orchestrated by Ferde Grofe, a performance fluid, suave, polished, and certainly not lacking in energy. The reading comes off as a cross between a full orchestral treatment and smaller, jazz-band arrangement (Gershwin having originally composed it for Paul Whiteman's "symphonic" jazz orchestra). So expect a few jazzy flourishes along the way. Although Pennario doesn't seem entirely attuned to the soul of jazz, he acquits himself well enough.

Next is Gershwin's An American in Paris (1928), orchestrated by Gershwin himself. It is, of course, a descriptive tone poem portraying an American visitor to Paris in the Twenties strolling about and taking in the sights and sounds of the city. Perhaps because of the more colorful nature of the score, I found Slatkin's interpretation a bit more persuasive than in the Rhapsody.

After that we have the famous suite (1942) from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935), arranged by Robert Russell Bennett as a "Symphonic Picture." Again, maybe because of the characteristics of the music and Slatkin's affinity for it, I found this suite most effective of all, especially the more-languid interludes. "Summertime" never sounded better.

Complementing the Gershwin tunes, we have Gould's Latin-American Symphonette (1940), also a suite, this one comprised of a Rhumba, a Tango, a Guaracha, and a Conga. They, too, display high good spirits, although, frankly, none of these readings drew me to them the way those of the other conductors mentioned above do.

The recordings, newly reissued by EMI in 2010, derive from dates in the late Sixties. The booklet insert says that EMI first published the Rhapsody in 1967 but further notes that the other works have "unknown" recording dates and locations. Interestingly, EMI identify the ensemble as the "Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra" even though the orchestra didn't go by that name at the time; it had disbanded years before and the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the summertime Bowl concerts, with today's Hollywood Bowl Orchestra formed in 1990.

Be that as it may, the sound in the Gershwin numbers is a tad bright and forward in the upper midrange, with a big, thumping bass. It makes for an impressive effect, if not always too realistic, being a little too thin in the middle frequencies and upper bass, with a somewhat hard-edged response overall. Making up for any shortcomings are a wide stereo spread, a respectable depth of field, a strong presence, and plenty of air around the instruments. The Gould piece, on the other hand, is smoother, richer, and fuller, sounding much more natural in the process.

A final note: The disc contains almost eighty minutes of music, about the limit of a CD. To put that into perspective, it's the equivalent of four full sides of LP content. You can't say you don't get your money's worth.

JJP

2 comments:

  1. I do believe the Slatkin P&B Symphonic Picture was originally released in 1959 (one of the very first stereo recordings of the medley).

    ReplyDelete
  2. You may well be right; at least, it sounds right. Unfortunately, the folks at EMI don't know that. They only list the recording date as "Unknown."

    ReplyDelete

John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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