This is one of the jazziest, liveliest, and most improvisatory Gershwin albums
to arrive in a long time. With George Gershwin’s orchestral
music, there’s a spectrum of possible interpretations,
from performances which emphasize the classically trained side
of the composer to those which shake off all the rules and dance.
Weiss’s piano concerto on Naxos earlier this year
was the former; this is the latter.
A lot of that is because of the Bergen Philharmonic and Andrew
Litton. Litton, who’s recorded this music in the past
as piano soloist, inspires his players to rare levels of jazzy
indulgence: the extra drum rim-shots in the concerto’s
introduction; the stylish, sly, debonair trumpet solo which
steals the slow movement; the truly delicious clarinet intro
to Rhapsody in Blue. Purists might actually be put off,
but then, Gershwin himself improvised half the solos in Blue
at its premiere, so I don’t think he’d have minded.
There’ve been a lot of great recordings of this concerto
recently - Jon Nakamatsu and the Rochester Philharmonic, Orion
Weiss from Buffalo, Michel Camilo from Barcelona - but no orchestra
has more fun than the Bergen players do. I already mentioned
it, but Martin Winter’s trumpet solo deserves some kind
of prize; from the clarinet, trombone, sax and other players,
there are simply too many inspired moments to count.
Freddy Kempf’s approach, by contrast, is to soft-shoe
through with elegance and old-time dance-hall grace. In the
album’s first few minutes, this seems like it will generate
a stylistic clash between soloist and band, but these fears
are set aside. Kempf can dazzle when he needs to, and he can
also play sensitive to generate a contrast with Litton’s
orchestra, which dazzles nonstop. Then there’s the concerto’s
finale, insanely fast and purely exciting.
The original-orchestration Rhapsody in Blue also benefits
from this rich contrast and from the incredible Bergen Philharmonic,
although I wish Kempf’s first extended solo was more assertive.
Like the concerto, proceedings really hit their stride after
a few minutes to warm up, but when they do, watch out! It’s
worth pointing out that an even more authentically jazzy Blue
with sparks flying can be had from Lincoln
Mayorga and the Harmonie Ensemble, which also happens to
be the only recording I’ve yet heard with a finer clarinet
solo from 93-year-old Al Gallodoro, who had been playing the
part since the 1930s.
The Second Rhapsody goes phenomenally from start to end,
and there’s never a suggestion that this sequel work is
second-rate; it’s easily my favorite performance of the
piece. And the CD ends with the “I Got Rhythm”
Variations, a super-snappy encore with gleeful playing from
all parties, including a jazz-band drum set and Freddy Kempf
romping with the lowest possible inhibitions. My top choice
is Mayorga again, on the same CD linked to above.
The booklet is very good; BIS’s hybrid SACD sounds phenomenal,
as always. At high volume the best climaxes simply thunder out,
all orchestral sections vividly captured from the piano back
to the bass drum. There is, uncharacteristically, some kind
of acoustical glitch with the piano solo near the start of in
Blue. Still, this is an irresistibly fun album on which
a Russian pianist and Norwegian orchestra produce incredibly
idiomatic New York jazz. Andrew Litton deserves a lot of the
credit, but so do his soloists. On the Gershwin spectrum, Orion
Weiss’s Naxos CD represents the “classical”
approach, Previn is somewhere in the middle, and this is loudly,
proudly in a state of jazz. No matter how many Gershwin albums
you have, you don’t have one that sounds like this!