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George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Catfish Row Symphonic Suite (arr. Steven D. Bowen) (1935/1936) [27:59]
Summertime (from Porgy & Bess) (1935) [3:26]
By Strauss (1936) [2:37]
An American in Paris (1928) [20:25]
The Man I Love (from Lady be good / Strike up the Band) (1924/1927) [4:39]
My Man is gone now (from Porgy & Bess) (1935) [4:14]
I got rhythm (from Girl Crazy) (1930) [4:08]
Rhapsody in Blue (jazz band arrangement by Ferde Grofé) (1924) [18:27]
Claron McFadden (soprano)
Bart van Caenegem (piano)
Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel
rec. deSingel and Concertgebouw Brugge, Belgium, March 2017
ALPHA CLASSICS 289 [86:12]

“Anima Eterna Brugge plays Gershwin’s most iconic compositions on the appropriate instruments and using a brand new edition of the scores: never recorded before and irresistibly charming.” Thus shout the liner notes for this new disc. So is that enough to get collectors to dump favourite versions for the sunlit uplands of “authentic” Gershwin? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding no. In the words of Duke Ellington, “it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.” And Jos van Immerseel ain’t got it. Great store is made of the authentic instruments used including—hold your breath—the fact that the violins use steel E strings… just like most modern violins today do anyway… In other words, the differences between instruments in the early mid-20th Century and now are not that great. The performance pitch is standard/modern too. Yes, the bank of saxophones here—really beautifully played—do have a thinner, more sinuous tone than a post-swing band front line, but that’s about it. I am sure true believers of the authentic way will claim that inner detail is miraculously revealed. Certainly there are a lot of instrumental lines clearly audible, although oddly the banjo less than one might expect, but this is down to the engineer’s art rather than the period instruments.

The big big problem here is van Immerseel’s dead hand on the baton. I guess he likes, even possibly loves, this music but that does not mean that he has an instinctive feel for the idiom. Too often, phrasing in all three of the major works is prosaic, and tempi simply plod. Look no further than American in Paris breaking the 20 minute mark. Even those conductors who take a similarly broad view give the walking rhythms a strut and jaunty swagger. John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl or Gerard Schwarz in Seattle are cases in point. However, most conductors bring the piece in around 17:30 to 18:30 mark. Steve Richman and his Harmonie Ensemble New York go for an altogether different take on authenticity with a rather over-driven 16:56. I do not particularly like that either but it is a whole lot more engaging than this version. That said, the players in Anima Eterna Brugge are very good indeed, and as mentioned the recording is detailed, so the listener has plenty of opportunities to hear the nuts and bolts of the various works’ construction.

This is an exceptionally generous disc, running to 86:12, easily the longest standard CD I have encountered. It opens with Gershwin’s own suite drawn from Porgy & Bess which he called Catfish Row. This five-movement suite gives most if not all of the famous tunes from the opera in orchestral form. For many years this selection was less often played than Robert Russell Bennett’s Symphonic Picture but these days it is well represented on disc. Immerseel does not seriously challenge any of those pre-existing versions. Kunzel in Cincinnati or Slatkin in St. Louis, to name but two lead ensembles, are completely at home in the idiom and convey the sheer drama and excitement of the work bettwr than Immerseel. Even Yan Pascal Tortelier, a far from natural Gershwin-ite, draws more idiomatic playing from the BBC PO on Chandos. Take the 4th section Hurricane which covers the storm that sweeps through Catfish Row and Crown’s return. For sure, Kunzel is helped by typically cinematic engineering from Telarc but there is a thrust and muscular energy quite missing in the accurate brilliance of the AEB. Likewise all of the big melodies from Bess you is my woman to the gentle sway of Summertime to the perky optimism of I’ve got plenty of nuttin’ are given perfectly beautiful but oddly literal interpretations.

One of the questions of authenticity not consistently broached on this disc is whether to play straight or swung eighths. My sense is they should be swung: here they rarely are. For sure, there are plenty of moments throughout the disc which showcase the excellence of the AEB both collectively and as soloists. The cor anglais playing is very fine throughout but then the lead trumpet will play the first phrase of the Home Blues section of American in Paris quite beautifully—albeit it at another of Immerseel’s oh so laboured tempi—and razz the second phrase like they were accompanying some cheap floor show [track 8, 9:00]. Not apt and not at all pleasing on one, let alone on repeated listens.

The third main work here is Rhapsody in Blue with pianist Bart van Caenegem. His background as a jazz pianist ensures that by some way this is the most idiomatic of the orchestral works offered on this disc. Ferde Grofé’s original jazz band version is used here but again that is neither uncommon nor rare on disc these days. van Caenegem adds some of the extended material in the cadenzas and the linking passages that again is not that unusual but neither is any of this material so remarkable or original to mean that versions using it supersede those that do not. In the spirit of authenticity, van Caenegem plays a 1906 Steinway which has the typically more brittle sound than the modern equivalents. He plays with great clarity and this is helped by the lighter sound this piano makes. Even with van Caenegem moving things forward and allowing for the brief extra material this is still a rather slow performance at 18:27. Tilson Thomas in LA and Steve Richman back in New York who both use this jazz band version too come in a full three minutes quicker. Earlier, when Tilson Thomas famously teamed up with Gershwin’s own piano roll ,version the result was a rocket-fuelled 13:45 but that version is a genuine one-off, even if an obligatory listen for Gershwin fans.

Interspersed between these works are a selection of songs; two Porgy & Bess excerpts and three show songs. All are sung by soprano Claron McFadden. By some distance the best things on the disc are her up-tempo versions of By Strauss and I got rhythm. These sit perfectly in her vocal range: a strong chest belt with a good soprano extension. Where she struggles is with the purer soprano sound of Summertime and My man is gone now. Hence I am slightly surprised that she opts for the “Clara” key of B minor which needs to be all purity and innocence rather than the “Bess” key of A minor which gives the singer just that extra bit of tonal headspace. A direct comparison to any of the Claras on the complete opera recordings—from Barbara Hendricks for Maazel to Harolyn Blackwell for Rattle—makes it clear that fine singer though McFadden is, this is simply not most suited to her voice.

Her ease of characterisation in the former show songs is in stark contrast to the consciously “placed” feel of the latter opera excerpts. Certainly the former benefit from her presence in that the players get to sound unbuttoned and joyous in a way that is absent in the bulk of the programme. You have to dig around in the depths of the back of the liner to find out who did which arrangement. Hence the brilliant Russell Warner’s witty recreation of By Strauss is fascinating to hear next to Robert Russell Bennett’s more standard but still hugely effective I’ve got Rhythm. Likewise William Daly’s take on The man I love is a beauty, but I can imagine it performed with greater “feel” on the stick. As an aside for those interested in the art of show arranging, here is a fascinating and informative article.

The liner notes, which include the song lyrics in English, are poor. The information is too general, and more interested in saying how well researched the project is than writing much about the music. There are no details about the show origins of some of the songs, no mention of the great arrangers used and little real “meat” about the concert music itself. A poor cartoon/graphic of Gershwin completes the mediocrity of the presentation. No doubt this disc will receive accolades and praise for its revelatory nature but for me there exist any number of other versions of each and every piece presented here that for all they might lack in nominal authenticity they make up for in idomaticity—a quality this disc, or more to the point, Jos van Immerseel, wholly lacks. Authentically dull.

Nick Barnard

 

 




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