Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (CD review)

Also, Prokofiev: Concerto No. 3; Ravel: Concerto for Left Hand. Julius Katchen, piano; Istvan Kertesz, London Symphony Orchestra. HDTT, remastered.

Julius Katchen (1926-1969) was an American concert pianist who died of cancer just a few months after recording the present album in 1968. One would never guess from the recording how ill he was; most of the music reveals the vigor and vitality of a man in more than good health. Yet, things happen. The celebrated Jewish-Hungarian conductor in the work, Istvan Kertesz (1929-1973), would himself succumb to a drowning accident a few years later. So, in a way, this is a sort of memorial to both artists and a fitting tribute to both their talents.

First up on the program is Rhapsody in Blue, which as you no doubt know bandleader Paul Whiteman persuaded American composer and pianist George Gershwin (1898-1937) to write back in 1924, suggesting he make a jazz-inflected showpiece for Whiteman 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. As everyone knows, Gershwin's fusion of classical and jazz became a musical phenomenon.

Katchen's version of the piece with the London Symphony may not be quite the lean, mean classical jazz Gershwin intended, though. Under Katchen and Kertesz, it's more a slightly jazzy classical piece. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's too sedate, too refined, too symphonic, and too somber, but it's close. I think it's just that Katchen was foremost a classical pianist and his naturally elegant style wasn't quite what Gershwin needed. Still, it's a pleasure listening to him play.

Julius Katchen
Next, we find the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major (1930) by French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), which Ravel wrote for a pianist who had lost his right arm during the First World War. This one is more up to the style of Katchen and Kertesz. We have it here in one continuous movement, although Ravel once said it was really two connected movements. Whatever, Katchen and Kertesz navigate the somewhat less but still jazz-toned score with more comfort, more-inherent ease, than they managed in the Gershwin. Both men lend a good deal of weight and gravitas to the music without missing any of its rhythmic tonal colors or lush, lyrical qualities.

Finally, we get the Concerto No. 3 in C major (1921) by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). While its arrangement is in a traditional three movements, the second movement is a set of variations ranging from fairly slow to very fast, and the final movement is a brilliant display of virtuosity. Here, too, Katchen and Kertesz shine, with a particularly playful opening Allegro and a dazzling close.

Producer Ray Minshull and engineers Kenneth Wilkinson and Alec Rosner recorded the music for Decca at Kingsway Hall, London, in November 1968. HDTT remastered the album in 2016. The sonics are nicely warm and rounded, with a decent sense of depth and dimensionally. The engineers captured the ambience of Kingsway Hall quite realistically, too, although in terms of balance the piano seems a bit bigger, more forward, than it might appear in an actual concert. Upper mids are sometimes a tad rough as well, although it's not enough to warrant concern. It's a comfortable, enjoyable sound, sure to please most listeners.

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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa