Gershwin: An American in Paris (CD review)

Also, Concerto in F; Three Preludes; Overture to Of Thee I Sing. Lincoln Mayorga, piano; Steven Richman, Harmonie Ensemble/New York. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907658.

It's always good to see another recording of music by American composer and pianist George Gershwin (1898-1937). His fusion of popular and classical music will probably live on for as long as music exists. It's also especially good to hear his music presented in arrangements as close to Gershwin's original intentions as possible, as we find on the present album. Arranger, conductor, composer, and pianist Lincoln Mayorga handles the solo duties in the Concerto in F, while Steven Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble/New York handle the orchestral duties. It's a well-performed and well-recorded program, deserving one's attention.

First up is the little Overture to "Of Thee I Sing," presented in its 1934 radio version. It gets things off to a rousing start, even if there is not much to it. Richman and his ensemble appear in good form and seem to be enjoying themselves, conditions carried over throughout the rest of the album.

Next is the Concerto in F (1925), featuring Mr. Mayorga on piano and ably supported by Maestro Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble. This piece is a bit unusual in that the piano never quite dominates the music the way you might expect in a concerto. An Allegro opens the work in a big, robust, sweeping fashion, supposedly Gershwin's way of saying he could write a "proper" concerto after the popular success of Rhapsody in Blue a year before. The fact is, the Concerto is not as melodic as the Rhapsody, which is probably why it is not quite as memorable, yet the two works bear a marked resemblance to one another. Mayorga seems well suited to the temperament of the music and well conveys both the classical and jazz-inflected elements of the piece.

Steven Richman
The second-movement Adagio evokes the languorous, soulful mood of a nocturne, especially in the bluesy segment for trumpet and cornet and then in a more breezy, buoyant section when the piano enters. As Gershwin was a fan of Chopin, who wrote so many nocturnes, the similarities would seem appropriate. Mayorga's contribution is as jazzy as it can be while still maintaining a hold on the classical ingredients. His playing has a jaunty, airy feeling to it, with perhaps more of it leaning to the pop side of big, orchestral jazz than to Chopin, but who cares. It's ebullient and fun.

Then the finale takes up where the first movement left off, big and bold. Here, Mayorga and Richman really catch fire and bring the show to an exhilarating close. I quite enjoyed the whole thing.

Next on the program we find Three Preludes (1926) in first-ever recordings of their 1930s' arrangements by composer and pianist Roy Bargy. The pieces sound typically Gershwin, tiny miniatures of his bigger works, working together in a fast-slow-fast layout. Richman and his players take advantage of the music's conciseness, emphasizing the relationships with the music preceding it on the disc.

Finally, we get the real star of the show, An American in Paris, with Richman and company again working from Gershwin's own manuscripts (and restoring the original saxophone parts). The work is, of course, a descriptive tone poem portraying an American visitor to Paris in the 1920's, strolling about and taking in the sights and sounds of the city. The colorful nature of the score never appears undermined by the leaner, more unsentimental nature of Gershwin's own goals.

Richman takes the piece at a brisk pace; maybe our American visitor was on a tight schedule and needed to see as much of Paris in as short a period of time as possible. In any case, it does no harm, and it was maybe Gershwin's intention all along (since he reportedly hated the slow tempos of the world premiere performance in 1928). When the more leisurely sections come around, they sound all the more poignant in contrast. It's an enjoyable interpretation, if not quite capturing all the electric pulse of the work I've felt in the old Bernstein recording, and there's no questioning the impressive musicianship of the Harmonie Ensemble/New York.

Producers Adam Abeshouse and Steven Richman and engineer Adam Abeshouse recorded the music at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music, New York City, in June 2014. The recording sounds particularly good in regard to clarity and dimensionally. There is a fair amount of transparency throughout the midrange, too, and the orchestral depth sounds realistically fulfilling. The piano in the second number sounds pretty well balanced, if a tad forward. Although an ultimate dynamic response and impact seem a little missing, I doubt many listeners will even notice, the rest of the audio is so good.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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