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George Gershwin

Concerto in F Major for Piano & Orchestra (1925)

One hears over and over again how, while Gershwin may have been a genius, he did not know how to compose long works, that there are structural weaknesses, and that much of what he does is slop work to get to his next big theme. There is some truth here, but not much. If you expect a classical concerto or something like the Brahms, don't hold your breath. The major weakness of Gershwin is not that the movements don't cohere, but that it's difficult to shape a movement. A conductor must design the builds, climaxes, and falls-away, since Gershwin doesn't give much help. It is difficult to pick out his transitions, since, like Brahms, his transitions comprise bits of themes. Incidentally, one has much the same problem in a work like Brahms' Symphony No. 4. We judge the worth of a Brahms conductor by how well he shapes things. Curiously, very few people have made Gershwin conductors adhere to the same standard. This listener's roadmap will show you how Gershwin put together one of his finest works, strangely neglected on record. One rarely finds even a good performance. Earl Wild and Arthur Fiedler turn in a barn-burner on RCA 6519-2-RG. Oscar Levant and André Kostelanetz did a fine version on Sony MPK 47681, but the sound is "historical," and you lose much detail in the orchestra. Some of Gershwin's finest and most subtle effects lie in subsidiary orchestral lines. Philippe Entremont and Eugene Ormandy had a decent account on Sony SBK 46338. However, to my mind, Mitch Miller raises the bar on performances of this work, simply due to his attention to textural detail. He seems to take Gershwin seriously, rather rare among conductors who bother with the composer at all. Therefore, I use timings from the Mitch Miller (cond.)/David Golub (piano)/London Symphony Orchestra performance on arabesque Z6587.


If we step back, we see that the movement comprises an introduction of the basic musical material, alternation between a langorous theme and a snappy one, a slow, romantic middle, and a wind-up in which most of the themes reveal common origins. Now to the details:

A few wham-boks from the timpani leads to a Charleston rhythm in the orchestra, as well as a (0:13) pentatonic upward run (hereafter referred to as "pent-up"). Gershwin repeats this with slight variations. At 0:30, pent-up leads to wham-bok (1:04) in alternation. At 1:30, a sultry theme is heard. It's an important one, so it's worth describing its shape: several repeated notes with an upward leap. At this point, we have most of the building blocks of the concerto. Gershwin will vary these with great resource, fragmenting them, recombining them, and extending them into new shapes, not only in this movement, but in subsequent ones.

At 2:30, sultry is repeated with a counter-melody in the cellos and in the high strings. This winds down and Gershwin introduces a "Spanish" rhythm (3:22), but it quickly reveals (3:37) itself as a variant of the opening Charleston. Sultry reappears (4:12), with the piano taking the counter-melodies. A micro-cadenza leads to the Charleston (5:24) against pent-up (5:35) expanded and an elided variant of sultry (6:03). Gershwin then works with pent-up for a bit. The elided variant (6:54) is expanded and played with, then (7:29) slowed up and played ballad- style in a bright radiant key. By 8:22, it has built to an orchestral climax.

There's more variation on the Charleston (9:19) against yet another variant of sultry (9:28). From here, Gershwin varies pent-up in surprising ways, until we reach a recap of sorts (11:16) with the Charleston, wham-bok, and (11:40) a full-blown restatment of sultry for a second large climax. The "Spanish" transition (which, you recall, simply varies the Charleston, and reveals it also has family roots in sultry - 12:49) leads to a review of all the major cells. And a coda (13:47) bangs away at the sultry theme (13:56), pent-up (14:03), and the Charleston (14:09).

What the movement shows is that Gershwin has taken really only three ideas (pent-up, wham-bok, and the Charleston - sultry was revealed as a variant of the Charleston) and built an entire movement, filled with contrast, where not one passage is thematically irrelevant. Give the man a cigar.

SECOND MOVEMENT, Andante con moto

Pay careful attention to the opening. Again, Gershwin introduces his building material early. The opening notes on the horn, alternating seconds, have immense consequences, as does the bluesy chordal sequence that immediately follows. Many of the themes are built from the alternating seconds. A solo trumpet takes up the alternating seconds (0:23) and expands it into what I call Blues 1. At 0:47, an important idea consisting of initial repeated notes appears. By 1:07, it has revealed itself as another cousin of the sultry theme from the first movement. Blues 1 sings again (1:25), pulled and extended into new shapes (1:42). At 2:30, the trumpet repeats its opening material and by 3:02, Gershwin plays with a pent-up variant.

The repeated-note theme appears (3:34) on the piano in snappy tempo, hinting at the rondo theme of the third movement (see below). This is developed with the alternating seconds (4:29). Thus, the theme reveals that the alternating seconds relate as well to the first-movement sultry. At 5:04, Gershwin repeats this theme. At 5:54, a lovely, brief violin solo sings with elements of the latter half of this theme, which leads to Blues 1 again (6:09). At 6:29, Blues 1 sings again with the trumpet in yet another variation on the repeated-note theme.

The solo piano begins Blues 2 (7:28) which leads to a cadenza at 7:45 that explores Blues 2, which also makes prominent use of the alternating seconds. At 9:02, the orchestra takes this up in extended fashion.

At 10:10 comes a remarkable passage for flute and string quartet, in a variation on the repeated-note theme. Blues 2 comes in for mainly piano, with very delicate accompaniment, leading to variations with alternating seconds in the lower parts and ending on a big statement (12:16) of Blues 2 and a coda on Blues 1 (12:45).

Most of the music here has been orchestrated with imaginative grace and subtlety. I hear sounds that, as far as I know, inhabit only this work. It's one of Gershwin's finest.

THIRD MOVEMENT: Allegro agitato

This movement comes closest to a classical rondo, with its rat-a-tat main theme really a variation of the first-movement "sultry." The orchestra spits it out in g minor, when the paino (0:17) repeats it in an audaciously brilliant (I can't call it a modulation, since it simply appears) insistance on f minor. A variation of pent-up (0:50) leads to sultry in a vigorous tempo (1:02) - the first episode. The rondo, or at least a part, reappears at 1:30. Gershwin then extends pent-up to yet another theme (1:50). At 2:12, he fragments it. Rat-a-tat plays against pent-up extended at 2:25, with the latter continuing. The second episode.

The main theme re-appears and leads to Blues 2 at 3:04. Gershwin plays some more with pent-up extended (3:20) leading to a brilliant stretto (a highpoint in American music) where the theme seems to multiply in pyrotechnical bursts (3:38). The rondo reappears (3:52) with the repeated-note theme from the second movement (4:15). At 4:31, the piano varies pent-up. The rondo main theme crashes in again (4:56) and its second half transmogrifies into a variant of pent-up (5:03). This leads to a big climax on (I think) the tam-tam at 5:17. "Sultry" (5:22) puts in its last big appearance. Rat-a-tat (6:23) leads to pent-up (6:25), to wham-bok (6:39), and an extended leave-taking (6:50) on pent-up from the piano.

Essentially, Gershwin takes advantage of the rondo form to survey previous discoveries from a more propulsively rhythmic point of view. Give the man another cigar.

Copyright © 1996 by Steven Schwartz. All Rights Reserved.