This year, Santa made me a present of a collection of Gershwin songs. For a very long time, I've been trying to figure out the harmonies on my own, with little success. Seeing the sheet music made the reasons (other than the limitations of my ear) apparent. Those harmonies are hard, by gosh! – augmented chords with flattened sevenths, chords built from adjacent keys, unusual voicings. I'm currently studying "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and have reached the point where my own playing doesn't make me sick, but, as we say in the Midwest, I still have a ways.
Still, a Gershwin accompaniment satisfies the hands. It's great fun, once you've got it. I wonder what real pianists, who probably get this stuff at sight, must think. At least four really good ones have provided virtuoso paraphrases of Gershwin's music: Earl Wild, Percy Grainger, Beryl Rubinstein, and Gershwin himself in George Gershwin's Song Book. Each approaches the job differently. Wild wants to give his fingers something to do. Grainger wants to set off the melody. Rubinstein tries to reproduce an "orchestral" feeling. Gershwin turns "arrangeable" songs into tight epigrams of composition.
Kudos to Richard Glazier, simply on his choice of repertoire. There are, by his count, four recording premières. By mine, there are eight. The best-known works here are the Three Préludes, and you can't exactly call them over-recorded. The disc represents a serious exploration of the Gershwin catalogue. Even better, the player confronts these pieces in a way that strikes me as new.
Quite simply, he plays Gershwin like most pianists would play Chopin or Debussy – a neat idea, and not all that far-fetched. After all, the three composers (other than himself) Gershwin played most often were Bach, Chopin, and Debussy (I forget the source of this information, unfortunately). To judge by the available recordings, Gershwin played his own music pretty straight (although almost never the same way twice), and pianists have pretty much followed this. To me, the great difficulty Gershwin's work poses to performers is not virtuosic, but architectural: how to bring sense to the "flow" of the piece. One encounters the same sort of problem in Debussy. Gershwin himself remarked to Mitch Miller (then playing oboe in a touring orchestra led by Gershwin) that he couldn't notate precisely how he wanted the music to sound, which makes sense if you take a look at the rather long tempo indications prefacing many of works – it's almost like reading a stanza of Dante. The straight-ahead approach can't really be all that straight.
Glazier brings something more to the keyboard, without losing the music's dance quality – a plasticity of line (rubato is only part of it), whereby the music seems to just breathe. I don't know how he does this, but the music is not merely in his fingers, it's in his bones and blood.
Earl Wild has a long association with Gershwin's music. For many years, his recordings of the Concerto in F and the "I Got Rhythm" Variations with Fiedler were the best around (RCA Gold Seal 6519-2RG reissued on Living Stereo SACD 82876-61393-2), and they're still pretty damn good. Wild also has arranged Gershwin works for solo piano, including his Seven Virtuoso Études on Gershwin songs. Glazier takes two: the études on "Embraceable You" and "Somebody Loves Me." In the first, the melody sings out amid a continual swirl of notes – to a large extent, a study in arpeggio. The second transcription is less note-y, varies the texture more, and succeeds better. Glazier brings off the happy illusion that he has made them up on the spot, so far has his performance come from just note-playing. Incidentally, Wild has recorded the complete set (Chesky CD-32). I'm not crazy about the études as a whole, however. Some definitely do work better than others.
The Grainger arrangements of "Love Walked In" and "The Man I Love" are fairly interesting and, understandably, share many features with Grainger's own solo piano music. For Grainger, melody was the rock on which one built a composition. This explains his attraction to Grieg, Delius, Gershwin, and folk song. Although they require a player of professional calibre, they're pretty spare. The melody is always dominant. Grainger varies the subordinate texture very subtly, and we seem to watch the melody – like Monet's cathedral paintings – under different light. Richard and John Contiguglia have also recorded these (MCA MCAD-6226) rather stiffly, I'm afraid, compared to Glazier, who turns these charmers into living music.
Music-loving Clevelanders of a certain age remember Beryl Rubinstein with fondness and respect – a musician of high and wide culture and for many years the director of the Cleveland Institute of Music, of great influence in the city's musical life. It turns out that Rubinstein was one of the first of the "serious" musicians in the country (as early as the early 20s) to recognize Gershwin's worth as a composer. Richard Glazier has uncovered several links between the two men. Gershwin composed "16 Bars Without a Name" (later incorporated into "Short Story," originally a violin piece for Samuel Dushkin) and dedicated it to Rubinstein. Rubinstein composed "Three Concert Transcriptions" from Porgy and Bess, brought out by Gershwin Publishing Corporation in 1945, and subsequently forgotten. Glazier rediscovered the music, and it's a genuine find: "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "Summertime," and "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin" for solo piano. The arrangements are elegant enough to remind me of von Bülow's arrangements of Wagner – no flashy effects, and almost every note contributes something meaningful. The fact that Gershwin's arias can blossom under that kind of treatment amazes even me, quite frankly. These transcriptions indicate the great structural integrity of Gershwin's music. Glazier phrases like Mengelberg and, most important, conveys the narrative coherence of these works.
Many pianists (and some big-name string players) have recorded the Three Préludes, gems of solo repertoire, including Gershwin himself. The composer's recording doesn't satisfy me, and indeed he seemed to have an attitude toward recording, unusual by today's standard. He apparently had no interest in a "definitive" performance, if we judge by those pieces recorded more than once, for the interpretations vary widely. They become a record of how he felt about the work at that moment. The best recording for me remains Levant's of 1949 – incisive and exciting. Bolcom's on Nonesuch is a bit dry. Tilson Thomas on Sony fidgets about like a flea on a hot brick, with bizarre, even downright ugly, touches of "interpretation," as if the Préludes aren't interesting enough on their own. As far as I'm concerned, Glazier's interpretation doesn't meet the standard he himself has set for the rest of the disc. There's nothing terrible about Glazier's Préludes, but nothing exceptional either.
Glazier fills the remainder of the disc with short Gershwin pieces (some of them still really sketches) very little known. Tilson Thomas and Bolcom have recorded some of these. Bolcom does a better job than Thomas, and Glazier beats them both with his usual virtues, conveying the works' architecture and getting the music to breathe. Particularly interesting are the "Meadow Serenade" from the original Strike Up the Band and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" from the Astaire-Rogers flick Shall We Dance. Strike Up the Band initially flopped on Broadway ("Satire is what closes on Saturday night"), and the wonderful original score disappeared. When the Secaucus trunk was discovered at a Warner Bros. warehouse in 1982 (the Gershwin scholar's equivalent of the restoration of the library at Alexandria), several scores (with orchestral parts) were found – Strike Up the Band among them. The version Glazier records comes from that trunk. We hear "They Can't Take That Away From Me" in its incarnation as a piano rehearsal score for a ballet sequence in the film. Gershwin himself composed and orchestrated the film's "Walking the Dog" sequence (now known as the concert piece Promenade), but the ballet is probably the work of either Robert Russell Bennett or Joseph A. Livingstone, credited for orchestrations and arrangements, respectively. I must say I prefer the ballet in its solo piano version, since its orchestral form struck me as corny as Mazola. Of course, it helps that Glazer plays with great taste here.
Piano sound is a bit forward but doesn't really distract. All in all, a fine disc.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz