This is another of those kind of, sort of theme albums, the producers telling us that "the music on this album celebrates the time-honored transatlantic link between France and America through the music of three composers--George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel and Philip Lasser." It suggest also "the French-American connection as the Marquis de Lafayette and his French troops helped the American colonists out against the British during the American Revolution." OK, a tenuous link if you ask me, but it's awfully good music and well handled by American pianist Simone Dinnerstein, conductor Kristjan Jarvi (another in the musical Jarvi family, son of conductor Neeme Jarvi and brother of conductor Paavo Jarvi), and the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra.
The program opens with the Piano Concerto in G major by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The Concerto has always struck me as one of Ravel's most-imaginative works, full of jazzy bustle one moment and the tenderest grace the next. It's done up not only in Ravel's usual impressionist style but most expressive as well, and unless the pianist is careful the piece can appear merely as a series of clamorous rants and dreamy allusions. One past master of taming this sometimes unwieldy beast was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who in a 1957 recording for EMI (now Warners) showed how beautifully crystalline and elegant the music could sound. Now, Ms. Dinnerstein gives it a shot, and she, too, finds joy in the work.
Dinnerstein emphasizes the jazz element in the first movement, perhaps to show the work's connection to Gershwin all the better. Yet she keeps it fairly light and atmospheric, too, never making the music appear too showy. Does it fully capture Michelangeli's magic? No, but it's close. Ms. Dinnerstein does even better in the touching second-movement Adagio assai, which embraces a sweet, Chopin-like quality. In the final Presto, Dinnerstein fully engages the composer's blazing technical displays, yet also manages to find some respite along the way. If the whole is still not quite so coherent as Michelangeli's account, it is nevertheless satisfying, with good support from Maestro Jarvi and the MDR orchestra.
Things close with the perennial favorite Rhapsody in Blue by American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937). In Gershwin it's hard for me not to think of Bernstein's classic recording for Columbia (now Sony) or Previn's (EMI) or Gershwin's own, reworked by Tilson-Thomas (Sony). Still, Ms. Dinnerstein puts her own stamp on the piece and makes the music a bit more tender than we usually hear it, a bit milder and gentler, though still filled with dazzling finger work. While I wouldn't call it as energetic an approach as the ones mentioned above, it's an interpretation that's easy to live with, and it reveals a sensitive side to Gershwin that is most flattering.
Adam Abeshouse produced and engineered the album, recording it at the MDR Orchestersaal, Leipzig, Germany in July 2014. The sound is warm and smooth, with no rough or jagged edges in sight. Nor have the engineers recorded it too close up; instead, it has a moderate distance involved, making it sound all the more realistic (if at the expense of sounding a trifle soft). Ultimate transparency, therefore, is only so-so, yet that's the case with many concert-hall performances, so one can hardly complain. Figuring into the equation a mild resonance as well, let's just say the sound is pleasingly comfortable.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: