Recording of August 2018: The Gershwin Moment

November 11, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1924 jazz-band version, orch. Grofé). 1 Piano Concerto in F. 2 “Summertime.” 3 Gershwin-Wild: “Somebody Loves Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You.”4 Oscar Levant: “Blame It On My Youth.” 5

Kirill Gerstein, piano; 1–5 Storm Large, vocal; 3 Gary Burton, vibraphone; 5 David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra1, 2

Myrios Classics MYR022 (CD, 24/192 FLAC). 2018. Kirill Gerstein, prod.; Stephan Cahen, prod.,1-5 eng.; 1, 2, 4, 5 Paul Hennerich, 1, 2, 4 Doug Decker, 3 engs. DDD. TT: 73:45

Performance *****

Sonics *** (CD), **** (24/192 FLAC)

I grew up with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I was the youngest in a family not particularly interested in music, and whose record collection consisted of pop music and three oddly assorted classical recordings, all on 78rpm discs: Enrico Caruso singing “Vesti la giubba,” Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (on four 12″ 78s), and the 1927 recording of Rhapsody in Blue with the Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra and Gershwin at the keyboard. I loved them all, especially the very lively Rhapsody, which wore out many osmium needles. It communicated more directly than any of the other pieces, but eventually it became over-familiar. After that, the Rhapsody and, indeed, all of Gershwin seemed to me an odd mash-up of classical style and old-fashioned jazz.

The cover art of The Gershwin Moment caught my attention first, but the participation of pianist Kirill Gerstein and conductor David Robertson made the sale. Gerstein’s recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Études had deeply impressed me, and the single concert I’d attended by Robertson and his St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was an electrifying performance of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. Downloading the Gershwin collection seemed worth a try.

From the opening notes, I knew this was something new. The familiar clarinet solo was subtly trilled, creating eager anticipation of the perfect segue into the orchestra’s entry, followed by the initial piano solo, which Gerstein shapes with graceful rubato. After that, everything just falls into place. The natural give-and-take of soloist and ensemble is apparent in their complementary tempi and loudness, unlike many performances of this work, in which the orchestra plays too fast or too loud. The former might have been due to the fact that early recordings had to be cut and/or rushed to fit two sides of a single 78, the latter perhaps to the common use of a full orchestra.

This version uses Ferde Grofé’s original jazz-band version for Whiteman’s Orchestra. The SLSO, slimmed down to mostly winds, brass, and percussion, sounds articulate and nimble, with spicy percussive flavorings. They perfectly complement Gerstein, who inflects his classical control with flexible jazzy accents. It all works so well that I was no longer aware of any classical/jazz discrepancy or jarring transitions. It flows.

I listened to nearly a dozen other recordings for this review. They use either Grofé’s later 1942 arrangement for full orchestra, or attempt to reproduce the early performances immediately following the 1924 premiere. All of the recordings with orchestra, including those by Leonard Bernstein brilliantly playing and conducting the New York Philharmonic, and the classic one by Earl Wild, Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Pops, sound to me too much like Rachmaninoff compared to the stylistically sensitive Gerstein and Robertson. The attempts at the original version vary widely, but most are compromised by abruptly fast tempos in the passages for band. Most satisfying to me is the recording of the original 1924 arrangement by pianist Ivan Davis and conductor Maurice Peress (long out of print), who get the pace and balance right, even if, in comparison to the imaginative and brilliant Gerstein, Davis’s playing is too staid.

The Rhapsody was recorded in multichannel DXD at concerts held in St. Louis’s Powell Hall, April 7–9, 2017, as were the Concerto in F and the three Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin by Earl Wild. I find the Concerto a less interesting work than the Rhapsody, but one to which Gerstein and Robertson apply equal affection and panache. Gerstein’s performances of the Etudes are delightfully charming; I only wish he’d recorded all seven. Storm Large’s singing in “Summertime” and Gary Burton’s vibraphone in Oscar Levant’s “Blame It On My Youth,” each accompanied by Gerstein, were recorded at other times and places but fill out this nicely balanced program. All together, Gerstein and Robertson have completely refreshed the Rhapsody, and offered it as the centerpiece of a great Gershwin album.

I fell in love with The Gershwin Moment by listening to the 16-bit/44.1kHz download available from many websites, but was later sent a 24/192 FLAC version. The 16/44.1 sound is pleasant and acceptably clear, but I’m bothered by its limited dynamic range, and by noises that sound like footfalls on stage. The apparently remastered 24/192 is better every way. There is considerable increase in clarity, and the footfalls are less noticeable, resulting in greater realism and impact. The 24/192 version, currently available from Qobuz, will shortly be offered by other vendors. A multichannel release is planned.—Kalman Rubinson

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