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CD Review

George Gershwin

Harmonia Mundi 907492

Gershwin by Grofé

Original Orchestrations & Arrangements
  • "I Got Rhythm" Variations 1
  • Rhapsody in Blue 1,2
  • The Yankee Doodle Blues
  • The Yankee Doodle Blues (new acoustic recording)
  • That Certain Feeling
  • Somebody Loves Me
  • Sweet and Low-down
  • I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise
  • The Man I Love
  • Fascinating Rhythm 2
  • Summertime 1,2
1 Lincoln Mayorga, piano
2 Al Gallodoro, alto sax, clarinet, & bass clarinet
Harmonie Ensemble, New York/Steven Richman
Harmonia Mundi HMU907492 54:46
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A handsome job all around.

Undoubtedly in a critical minority (although I'm no critic), I consider Gershwin one of the great Modern composers – certainly one of the greatest American composers. He's had a tough road to critical acceptance. You can spread the condescension toward him from the serious writers thick on a bagel. Other than a prejudice toward pop styles and pop acceptance, I have no idea why they take the attitude. A few heavyweights (Copland, Thomson, and Bernstein) and a whole bunch of lightweights blackball him from the True Composing Fraternity. I can say this: no music like Gershwin's existed before him, and no music in his style of comparable quality has appeared after him. Among all our concert composers, he is our Verdi: the serious musician who penetrated the popular subconscious. Copland and Bernstein have their mega-hits, of course, but how many people hum any part of Copland's Piano Concerto or Bernstein's A Quiet Place? Non-classical music lovers know arias from Porgy and Bess without realizing that these are indeed arias. Any reasonably alert American knows at least something of Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris. Many have even seen the movies. Of all the things Bernstein or Copland wrote, only West Side Story, Appalachian Spring, and Rodeo are remotely comparable in their general impact. Furthermore, after all these years, Gershwin remains one of our major pop songwriters and a continuing nourishment for jazz musicians.

In this latter role, Gershwin first made contact with bandleader Paul Whiteman, erroneously known as "The King of Jazz." Whiteman fronted a dance band whose music, grandiloquently puffed as "symphonic jazz" and in reality "sweet jazz" at best, was nevertheless the most popular in the country. Whiteman had a great influence on the future of American popular music, promoting or discovering not only Gershwin but Bix Beiderbecke, Mildred Bailey, Frankie Trumbauer, Jack Teagarden, Billie Holiday, and, spectacularly, Bing Crosby. Because of his success, he had the pick of publishers' catalogues and of arrangers. At various times, he used Grofé and Fletcher Henderson (given the race barrier in music at the time, surreptitiously), among others. Grofé, classically trained and oriented, wasn't likely to give him jazz-based arrangements. Most of the songs here ticker along to a "doo-wacka-doo" beat (a lot of banjo, by the way). "The Man I Love" chart comes from 1938. Swing had supplanted that sort of beat, but Whiteman didn't make the switch. Much of the Grofé arrangement seems to me proto-Mantovani – a heavy emphasis on strings, "symphonic" instruments. The "B" ("Maybe I shall meet him Sunday") section reverts to the Twenties sweet style.

One curiosity: the Harmonie Ensemble records two versions of "Yankee Doodle Blues," an early Gershwin and one of his rare songs to lean obviously on the blues. The first version gets all the great engineering Harmonia Mundi can muster. The second was recorded acoustically, ie, into a giant horn. Other than for their own amusement, I have no idea why they did this, except to make me very grateful for modern sound. At least 80% of the texture and tone disappears behind the "historical" curtain.

The album scores a coup by featuring then-93-year-old Al Gallodoro, a former Whiteman reed man. Sadly, Gallodoro died before the album's release. Nevertheless, the document is a valuable one. Gallodoro gets to duet on Gershwin's "Summertime" with pianist Lincoln Mayorga. This isn't the best jazz "Summertime" I've ever heard. There's very little penetration or re-thinking of the song (Milt Jackson and Miles Davis needn't look to their laurels), but it is a solid job of straight-ahead improvisation.

Grofé's most famous Gershwin arrangement are, of course, the original dance band and later symphonic arrangements of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. In the throes of tryouts for a Broadway show, Gershwin had forgotten his commitment to Whiteman to provide a "jazz concerto" for Whiteman's "Experiment in Modern Music" concert. Brother Ira saw a notice in the newspaper and alerted Brother George. With a three-week deadline, Gershwin had no time to orchestrate. He handed off pages to Grofé as he finished them. Even so, at the premiere, Gershwin had to improvise large parts of the score featuring solo piano. He cued Whiteman with a nod.

However, this specific set of circumstances led to unintended consequences. Rhapsody in Blue remains the only one of Gershwin's concert works that the composer did not orchestrate, but from this arose the myth that Gershwin couldn't orchestrate. Even Gershwin's own publishers have not used the composer's own scoring. Since Gershwin's death, most people have not heard the genuine concert Gershwin, and the arrangements lack the interest of the originals. Now Grofé did well. Indeed, I consider his dance-band version of the Rhapsody the best of the non-Gershwin orchestrations. Certainly Gershwin never felt the need to go back. Fortunately, Gershwin scholarship has come a long way toward establishing true texts, and labels have begun to record the real thing. This album features Gershwin's original score to the "I Got Rhythm" Variations. Gershwin wrote it for a nationwide tour with the Leo Reisman dance band, so it's necessarily a lot leaner than the symphony orchestra version, by one W. C. Schoenfeld. This particular bit of faux-Gershwin's a good standard orchestration, but the problem with any of these rewrites has been that Gershwin's orchestrations are far more sinewy, clear, and interesting. I have no idea what went on in the publishers' minds to allow tamperings that we would condemn for almost every other major composer. This isn't, after all, Mahler re-orchestrating Beethoven or Weber. These are journeymen tinkering with genius. It says a lot for Gershwin that his music has succeeded despite such nonsense.

The invention in the variations both impresses and surprises. From a vigorous piano statement of the theme, we get, among other things, a section where, in the composer's words, "the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," a "Chinese flute" variation where the piano imitates two out-of-tune flutes, a bluesy saunter, and a socko finish. One falls in love easily with (and hard for) this music. It gets inside you, especially into your feet. If you don't tap your tootsies, check your pulse.

The performances vary. The dance-band items are wonderful. I suspect the Whiteman band guys would have dropped their jaws at how well Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble do. The banjo player, Scott Kuney, tears off crisp roulades of strums in eerily perfect time. He becomes one of the driving rhythmic forces of the band. But he's not alone. Trumpets and violins in particular stand out in their beauty and clarity. The concert works run into problems. Again, Harmonie plays impeccably. The recording is superb; you can hear the inner workings of the scores unlike just about any other account. However, the interpretations come across as a little stodgy. The classic accounts of Leonard Bernstein's Rhapsody and the Arthur Fiedler/Earl Wild "I Got Rhythm" (in the Schoenfeld arrangement) don't get shoved aside. They have the joy and the fire, the willingness to go all out, that these readings, way too careful, lack.

All that said, this is a superior disc – beautifully recorded, well-played, attractively produced.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.

Trumpet