Gershwin: Overtures & Songs (CD review)

Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; John McGlinn, New Princess Theater Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 06689 2.

The tunes of George Gershwin (1898-1937) pretty much summed up the music of the 1920's and 30's, mainly because he wrote so much of it. Not only did his work permeate the Broadway stage, it made its way into Hollywood talkies and classical symphony halls all over the world. If this newly reissued EMI disc of Gershwin overtures and songs is any indication, the man is as popular today as he's ever been.

EMI combined two 1986 recordings on this single mid-priced disc, a bargain running over seventy-nine minutes. The first half of the program contains the Gershwin overtures, preludes, and suites made by conductor John McGlinn and the New Princess Theater Orchestra, a pickup group of musicians named after New York's old Princess Theater, long gone. The second half contains the album Kiri Sings Gershwin, with soprano Kiri Te Kanawa singing a dozen of Gershwin's most-famous songs, with McGlinn and company in accompaniment.

For me, the first half of the newly rereleased material is the most successful. It consists of seven purely orchestral selections in their original arrangements, some painstakingly reconstructed from archival scores, played with authenticity and panache by Mr. McGlinn and his group. The selections include two pieces from the film "A Damsel in Distress" (a suite arranged by McGlinn and an extended dance sequence, "Stiff Upper Lip"); the overtures from "Girl Crazy," "Tip-Toes," "Primrose," and "Oh, Kay!"; and the prelude from "Of Thee I Sing."  It's all done in a breezy, lively, purely Jazz-Age style.

The second half of the album is more problematical, depending upon how you react to soprano Kiri Te Kanawa singing popular American tunes. She had done this kind of thing before. Leonard Bernstein chose her to sing the lead in his recording of West Side Story in 1984, and she did a recording of South Pacific in 1986. Her voice is glorious, of course, but in Gershwin she seems a little out of place. Namely, she often seems too operatic, too cultured and refined for the music, too unbending in her rhythms. I would have preferred someone a bit more sympathetic to Gershwin's brand of pop-jazz.

In any case, Ms. Te Kanawa sings renditions of each of the songs arranged in their original forms, so we get a touch of genuineness in the proceedings. The songs include "Somebody Loves Me," "Boy Wanted," "Things Are Looking Up," "Love Walked In," "Love Is Here to Stay," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "But Not for Me," "Summertime," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "By Strauss," "Embraceable You," and "I Got Rhythm."

The 2010 reissued sound, which EMI originally recorded in July, 1986, is outstanding in almost every way. The orchestral arrangements for a midsized band are lucid and engaging, with excellent stage depth and transient response. If I had to criticize anything in a minor way, it would be that the bass is somewhat thin and the strings a tad forward. However, these qualities add to the overall transparency of the sonics, so we don't lose much. The resultant sound, with its vibrant dynamics and stimulating percussion, is almost demonstration quality and goes a long way toward selling the disc.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa