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CD Review

George Gershwin

Remembrance and Discovery, Volume 2

  • S'wonderful/Funny Face; Maybe (trans. by Artis Wodehouse)
  • Soon (arr. Maurice C. Whitney)
  • I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise
  • But Not for Me; Someone to Watch Over Me; Who Cares? (arr. Stan Freeman)
  • Rialto Ripples
  • How Long Has This Been Going On (arr. Chris Rutkowski)
  • Two Waltzes in C (arr. Saul Chaplin)
  • Jazzbo Brown Blues
  • For You, for Me, Forever More
  • Isn't It a Pity
  • Love is Here to Stay
  • Rhapsody in Blue for piano solo
Richard Glazier, piano
Centaur CRC 2486 63:31
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Summary for the Busy Executive: S'marvelous.

It is in the nature of pop music that it can be arranged every which way and remain itself. "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is fundamentally the same song whether sung by Fred Astaire, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, or Joan Morris. Gershwin, unlike, say, Mahler, had a relatively casual attitude toward his songs. He wrote most of them for theater or film - in short, the work of a brief season. If luck stayed with him, the songs would have a further life (and generate royalty income) in recording and on record, all arranged by others.

Alec Wilder dumped on Gershwin's song-writing in his American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950. His main complaint centered on Gershwin's melodies. I consider Wilder a crank, but I see his point. Gershwin's melodies ("Swanee" or "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," for example) aren't necessarily the best things about the songs. Nevertheless, I believe Wilder mistakes melody for song, and in Gershwin's case, this is indeed a mistake. Irving Berlin once said that while he himself and others were songwriters, Gershwin was a composer. That is, Gershwin writing a song thought in terms of a complete whole. The papers now in the Library of Congress show that Gershwin provided full piano accompaniments to just about every song he wrote, which means he thought about melody, harmony, voice-leading, and counterpoint, just like Schubert, another songwriter for whom melody isn't always everything. Wilder himself gets a glimmer of this when he mentions in passing that when he arranged Gershwin's songs, he almost never changed the bass line.

Glazier trotted out some fantastic Gershwin rarities in his first volume (Centaur CRC2271). Here, he presents a program mainly of Gershwin songs arranged by various hands, including Gershwin himself. Inevitably, some of the arrangements I like better than others. The disc shows several types of arrangement. Artis Wodehouse transcribed the numbers here from recordings Gershwin made. Maurice Whitney created a concert paraphrase of "Soon" for "advanced" pianists, when Gershwin's music underwent a mini-boom during the Forties. Saul Chaplin, a stalwart of the MGM music department for many years, came up with, in collaboration with George's brother Ira, his arrangement of a number from the show Pardon My English.

The composer begins to emerge in the piano accompaniments to the sheet music of "For You, For Me, Forever More," "Isn't It a Pity," and "Love is Here to Stay." Gershwin to some extent locked in a great deal of these arrangements because of his unusual, idiosyncratic harmonies. It's very hard indeed to get anything like the same sound without following Gershwin's ground plan - bass line and voice-leading. In fact, do yourself a huge favor and get The Gershwin Collection, published by the Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation, ISBN 0-7935-1337-5. Follow along. Gershwin appears as fully himself in a piano extract from George Gershwin's Song Book, "Rialto Ripples," and "Jazzbo Brown Blues." Glazier plays an amalgam of the solo and 2-piano arrangements of the Rhapsody. I have no idea how closely the composer involved himself in either.

The Wodehouse transcriptions - "S'wonderful"/"Funny Face" and "Maybe" - show Gershwin publicly improvising. In his liner notes, Glazier makes a point of emphasizing the difference between these writings-out of original Gershwin 78s and the piano solos Gershwin provided for his Song Book (here, Glazier plays "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise"), concluding that the Song Book solos represent "a skeletal outline the way Gershwin really played." I'd nit-pick and say that this is the way Gershwin played for certain venues, like piano rolls or song-plugging. We must remember, however, that the Song Book was Gershwin's attempt to give his pop songs immortality. He really didn't count on "S'wonderful" or "Funny Face" lasting on their own. When he composed for the ages, he wrote "Bess, You is My Woman Now," a classical aria. The Song Book solos are little musical epigrams, which happen to survey popular Twenties piano styles from an often-ironic distance. Gershwin the composer differs from Gershwin the improviser, in that he's far more elegant. "I'll Build a Stairway" offers an exuberant take on the Tin Pan Alley song-plugging style, but even here it's not the same. Gershwin's "fingerprint" inner-voice chromaticism is more in evidence, and the closing measures are almost delicate, before ending with a thump, as if to slyly send up what we've heard before.

"Rialto Ripples" gives us very early Gershwin - still, in fact, in his teens - in collaboration with one Will Donaldson. Ernie Kovacs fans will recognize this straightforward rag as the comedian's music over the closing credits of his TV shows. Still, even at this point, one can spot a more pungent harmony, more unusual piano textures, and a heavier rhythmic pulse than normally found in rags of this period. One even hears that right-thumb and forefinger chromatic line beneath the melody. Gershwin has simultaneously mastered the form and seems about to burst free of it.

Freeman's three arrangements - "But Not for Me," "Someone to Watch over Me," and "Who Cares" - aim to blend Chopin and Gershwin. All are tastefully done, and Freeman convincingly gets us to notice the similarities between the piano writing of the two composers - particularly the way both achieve their inner-voice chromaticism. I must say, however, that I prefer these "stylings" when Freeman stays closer to Gershwin and jazz than when he moves nearer to Chopin. At that point, a whiff of artiness begins to cling. I think it comes down to a matter of more straitened rhythm and fewer opportunities to swing.

Chris Rutkowski's rendition of "How Long Has This Been Going On" ranks as my favorite non-Gershwin Gershwin on the disc. Rutkowski has roots both in classical and in jazz. His take on one of Gershwin's best sounds like the ideal improvisation - spontaneous, no nattering, every note necessary, and revealing new depths in the song. It reminded me in spots of Bill Evans's meditative solos. In his liner notes, Glazier remarks on allusions to "Fascinating Rhythm." I hear little figures from "The Man I Love" and "Bess, You is My Woman Now" as well. If nothing else, this shows how thoroughly Rutkowski has absorbed Gershwin's melodic, harmonic, and keyboard habits.

Saul Chaplin has arranged the Two Waltzes in C from the "Tonight" sequence of Pardon My English. The show flopped, despite a fantastic Gershwin score. By this point, the composer had begun to move from a show of mix-and-match songs and dance numbers to integrated scenes. Pardon My English had its share of great Gershwin songs, including "Isn't It a Pity," "The Lorelei," "Freud and Jung and Adler," and "My Cousin in Milwaukee." "Tonight" was a duet, but a duet unlike most of what passed on Broadway for the genre - that is, the same song, sung in sequence by girl and boy, with different verse for each gender. Gershwin's own "How Long Has This Been Going On" is a good example. The girl sings of her days at the kissing booth of the charity bazaar, the boy of his girl-hating childhood, before they discovered true love. The music is identical. Only the words have changed. Incidentally, this separate-but-equal treatment allowed the songs' performance by either sex, thus increasing sales and royalties. "Tonight," however, gives a descending chromatic idea to the boy, who finishes out verse and chorus. Then the girl takes that musical idea turned upside-down and declaims her own verse and chorus. Finally, with effortless contrapuntal virtuosity, Gershwin combines the two musical ideas, as boy and girl sing their individual parts together. Ira, with pointed brevity, referred to the sequence as "His Waltz, Her Waltz, Their Waltz." It's a true scene, its drama reached primarily through music. Porgy and Bess is just around the corner. Chaplin keeps the counterpoint, but I, for one, miss the voices, the distinct timbres of hero and ingenue.

"Jazzbo Brown Blues" comes from the opening to Porgy and Bess. Gershwin's overture is unusual. It begins with a brief instrumental passage which fades into a solo piano sequence (this number), with dancers. Eventually, voices comment on the piano in wordless "breaks," and we see the residents of Catfish Row in the middle of a crap game, as Clara sings the lullaby, "Summertime." It's a dramatic sequence of great integrity. I suspect as well a psychological need of Gershwin to inject himself (or at least his piano alter ego) into the action in the figure of Jazzbo Brown. Anyway, the sequence works magnificently in the opera, less so as a piano solo out of context. Still, the ideas, as usual with Gershwin, compel listening. Incidentally, from this sequence André Previn built his own spiffy overture to the Preminger movie of the opera.

The piano parts to the published sheet music I suspect come rather close to what Gershwin wrote (mainly because of the "locking-in" nature of Gershwin's harmony), but adapted to the capabilities of home pianists. Glazier plays through the sheet music (I haven't checked, but probably incorporating certain silent editings) with real grace and a singing line. These performances are both elegantly lovely and revelatory.

At one point, it was practically de rigueur to sniff at the Rhapsody, along the lines of Leonard Bernstein's

… the Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It's a string of tunes stuck together - with a thin paste of flour and water.… [It's] not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut out parts of it without affecting the whole in any way except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections, and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another, and no harm done. You can make cuts within a section, or add new cadenzas, or play it with any combination of instruments or on the piano alone; it can be a five-minute piece or a six-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact all these things are being done to it every day. It's still the Rhapsody in Blue.

Conservatory-trained types had their noses out of joint (as to a large extent they do with Ellington) that Gershwin never wrote a sonata-allegro, much as university-trained poets used to smirk that Shakespeare never observed the classical dramatic unities. Both forgot that these are merely means to an end: coherence. I would say that Gershwin and Shakespeare are coherent in a bigger narrative sense. For example, I can hum large stretches of the Rhapsody without having to work at it, which for me means that it coheres.

If you look for Beethovenian logic, the Rhapsody will disappoint you. I don't think it's as bad structurally as Bernstein makes out - no worse, at any rate, than a lot of Chopin, Debussy, or Richard Strauss. I find only two truly dispensable episodes. The rest of it varies perhaps three motives. It hangs together by an associative "psychologic." At any rate, the piece apparently refuses to go away quietly. Almost every high-school pianist I knew played the solo version (as well as Gershwin's Three Préludes), and to a great extent the enthusiastic abundance of the work belongs to the young. Nevertheless, you wonder what a really fine, seasoned musician would make of it. Michael Tilson Thomas seemed bored with it in his performance on Sony CD, keeping his interest by means of weird crochets of Interpretation that continually bogged the work down. Early in his career, Bernstein emphasized the work's aggressive, rough edges, as befits the youngster he then was. Glazier isn't that kind of musician, although this account doesn't lack excitement. However, he emphasizes instead the narrative line of the work, in a way very rare in the Gershwin performing tradition. This means that he has to conceive of the work as a whole, rather than as momentary jolts and swoons. The work sounds incoherent to players all too willing to accept the notion of its incoherence. Glazier finds a true path through. To me, he plays it as if it were one of the Chopin ballades. This is one elegant, thoughtful account. I doubt anyone listening to Glazier could ever think again of the Rhapsody as pieces-parts.

In fact, Glazier does all this stuff beautifully. Chopin remains for me the dominant aural image, but that may well stem from so many of the arrangements Glazier's chosen. However, it also comes from his sense of line. Under his fingers, the music breathes like a living singer. Nevertheless, he can suggest, even though he doesn't ape, the aggression of the song-plugging Gershwin as well, especially in the Wodehouse transcriptions. "Rialto Ripples" becomes not the strictly commercial, machine product of the end of the Ragtime Era, but a piece that points to something new and more sophisticated. Parts of the Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F have seeds here - in the extended harmonic language and the idiosyncratic piano fingerings. Glazier makes you see this unpretentious piece not as the instrumental equivalent to the hard-sell, Jolson show-stopper "Swanee," but as the beginning of the career of a great composer.

I don't know how much longer Glazier will continue his apparently single-minded exploration of Gershwin. Even though he's turned up some wonderful treasures (especially on his first album), we've got to remember that Gershwin died young. The stack is a relatively short one. However, Glazier undoubtedly has a wider range. As much as I love his Gershwin, I look forward to his performances of work by other composers.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz