Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (CD review)

Also, Strike Up the Band Overture; Promenade; Catfish Row. Orion Weiss, piano; John Fullam, clarinet; JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.559750.

Let me begin by saying that I haven’t heard any interpretation of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue I like better than the one I grew up with, Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 rendering with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It’s a recording I’ve liked so much, I’ve owned it on a variety of Columbia, CBS, and Sony discs, culminating a few years ago in my buying the Blu-Spec edition from Sony Japan. This is all by way of saying that no matter how good pianist Orion Weiss, conductor JoAnn Falletta, and the Buffalo Philharmonic play the piece, it doesn’t quite match the animation and potency of the Bernstein version. That said, Weiss, Falletta, and crew still play it darn well.

As you probably know, it was bandleader Paul Whiteman who persuaded a brash, young George Gershwin (1898-1937) to write a jazz-inflected showpiece for him and his orchestra. When Gershwin initially declined, saying he didn’t know enough about orchestration to do the work justice, Whiteman assured him that he could get Ferde Grofe to arrange it for piano and orchestra. That was 1924, Gershwin’s classical jazz became a new musical phenomenon, and the rest is history.

On this Naxos disc, we get a deep, sultry treatment of the score. While it doesn’t have the sometimes eccentrically paced spontaneity of Bernstein’s interpretation or the sheer energy of Gershwin’s own piano-roll rendition (re-recorded with Michael Tilson Thomas), this new Naxos performance does display a graceful spirit and an appropriately bluesy manner. Also, I have to admit that Orion Weiss plays a mean piano, at the same time applying a very smooth, very delicate touch on the keys, making his interpretation a charming study in contrasts. And when Gershwin’s big, lush main theme kicks in, the whole thing is, well, a kick.

Nevertheless, no, in the end I wouldn’t necessarily buy this disc just for the Rhapsody. Weiss’s reading may be fluid and flowing, but it lacks the idiosyncrasies of tempo and rhythm that elevate Bernstein’s rendition over almost all competitors. Sometimes being overenthusiastic works. However, I would seriously consider the Naxos album when you look at the accompanying material. The Overture to the Broadway show Strike Up the Band makes a terrific curtain raiser and a great introduction to Gershwin’s style. Promenade, a piece of film music reconstructed by George Gershwin’s brother Ira, is brief, snappy, and dapper. And Catfish Row, Gershwin’s concert suite from Porgy and Bess (restored by composer Steven Bower), includes many of the opera’s most-famous and colorful tunes. Ms. Falletta and her Buffalo players provide all of this music with the jazzy, folksy sophistication it needs. If you liked Falletta’s earlier Gershwin disc, you will no doubt like this one as well. She and her fellow musicians have a good feeling for the orchestral jazz idiom Gershwin perfected so well.

Naxos recorded the music at Kleinhans Music Hall, Buffalo, New York in 2010 (Rhapsody in Blue and Promenade) and 2012 (Strike Up the Band and Catfish Row). Although the sound is a trifle on the warm, round, plushy soft side, the piano and orchestra show up nicely, and the wide dynamic range helps the sonics to pop. There’s a wide frequency range, too, with a satisfyingly extended treble and an occasionally thunderous bass, so even if the midrange transparency is mite too thick to be entirely transparent, the overall effect is natural and lifelike enough.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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