These two releases celebrate what would have been the hundredth birthday of George Gershwin, who was born on September 28, 1898. Considering the music that must still have been him, his death in 1937, a consequence of a late-diagnosed brain tumor, was a tragedy on the scale of Mozart's. We can never do enough to remember and praise George Gershwin.
The memorial Magic Key Program, in spite of the melancholy circumstances, is a delight from beginning to end. It consists of material originally issued on ten 78-rpm sides. "Gems" used to be Victor's way of indicating a medley, and that's what eight of these sides are – a breeze through the choruses (and maybe a verse here or there) of three or four songs at a shot. (One side is Jane Froman's complete rendition of "The Man I Love," and another is an arrangement of the middle section of Rhapsody in Blue - with chorus!) I usually find the medley format less than satisfying, but the singing and playing are so charming and so redolent of the era that I was completely disarmed. Froman, of course, was one of the era's great popular vocalists. Schuyler has a prettily crooning tenor voice at his disposal; Knight's sound is somewhat more mature. Shilkret, a friend of the composer's, was a conductor and arranger who appeared on hundreds of Victor discs, and while we, if we are concerned about "authenticity," may raise our eyebrows over his arrangements (I still can't get over the chorus in Rhapsody in Blue! - "Though you are gone, your melodies live on," etc.), it's all in good fun. For 1938, the sound is excellent. The booklet reprints the original program notes, but it would have been good for someone to have placed the program in historical perspective. Too bad there wasn't more music.
The recordings on the two-disc "historic" set, for the most part, need little introduction. Many of them have been around in one format or another ever since they were first issued. In 1924, Gershwin and Paul Whiteman recorded a 9-minute version of Rhapsody in Blue; it is included here. It sold so well that they recorded the abridgement again three years later, once Victor had switched from the acoustic to the electric recording technique. Both recordings are notable for their authentically jazzy approach. For example, take the impertinent yakking of the clarinet in the opening solo, and the absence of gush in the Rhapsody's central section. Morton Gould's 1955 version, also included here, is intact of course - side-lengths were not an issue by then - and it is a little more classical, although the jazz element is much more prominent than it is on other modern recordings. (Gould also is a fine but non-traditional pianist in the Three Préludes and in the Porgy solo. His comprehensive suite from the opera - 30 minutes long! - also was recorded in 1955.)
Of the two recordings of An American in Paris, the earlier one (conducted by Shilkret, with Gershwin playing the celesta) must have some authenticity to it, but I find it a little plain beside Bernstein's 1949 recording, which opens the second CD. It's as wonderful as the one he did almost a decade later (in stereo) for Columbia.
Eighteen minutes of vocal excerpts from Porgy and Bess feature Jepson and (especially) Tibbett in sonorous form. Were racial factors involved in the choice of these singers, though? Fortunately, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the original singers, recorded their songs for another label.
At any rate, both releases are desirable ones, although I liked the Magic Key Program a little more because of its rarity. Unintentionally, it has a lot to say about what it was like to live in America in 1938.
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle