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CD Review

George Gershwin

  • Overture "Strike Up the Band"
  • Rhapsody in Blue *
  • Promenade **
  • Suite from Porgy & Bess "Catfish Row"
* Orion Weiss, piano
** John Fullam, clarinet
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/JoAnn Falletta
Naxos American Classics 8.559750 54:16
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Also available on Blu-ray NBD0033:
Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - JPC

This is a marvelous disc, one that explores the full range of George Gershwin's considerable gifts. Like the previous Gershwin program from this team (Naxos American Classics 8.559705), it successfully combines an unusual seriousness of purpose with a genuine sense of fun. I'm aware that sounds contradictory, but let me explain. Gershwin gets treated like a major composer on both discs; both the Rhapsody in Blue and Rhapsody #2 are given very distinctive readings that highlight the composer's jazz roots, but also his desire to write real concert music. And so we find a Concerto in F that feels like a concerto, and an Overture that really could grip a theatre patron.

This particular disc begins with the aforementioned Overture (arr. Don Rose, 1927/1976), and makes a terrific opening number. The tune Strike Up the Band naturally appears at the end, and predictably so (there's nothing really inventive about the way it appears). The rest of the Overture is great fun, and shows the influences that Gershwin picked up in Europe. The Promenade (arr. Sol Berkowitz, adapted Rosenbloom/Fullam, 1937/2010) is nothing short of delicious. At a hair over three-and-a-half minutes, John Fullam sleazes his way through this musical "walk" without it ever feeling overly long. The piano support here – not credited to Weiss – is also quite fine, and everyone sounds like they are having a great time.

The Suite from Porgy and Bess (arr. Steven Bowen 1936/1997) gets recorded reasonably often, but almost never this well. Falletta is of course a terrific advocate of American music, and she and her players get to strut their stuff. Again, who is the pianist? Orion Weiss only gets credited for Rhapsody in Blue. At any rate, I've never much enjoyed this piece, but with this kind of commitment, what's not to like. So compelling is the playing – what a gorgeous solo violin – and so sincere is the effort, that you can't help but be drawn in. Actually, all the first-desk soloists do a remarkably fine job "singing". A truly great effort.

Oh, you want to know about that Rhapsody in Blue? Fine, fine…it's terrific as well. Even though the original band arrangement seems to be all the rage in today's "authentic" music scene, the 1924 orchestration by Ferde Grofé is about as old-fashioned as they come. Following a fine opening clarinet (Davis/Maazel remains my absolute favorite), the Rhapsody really lives up to its name. Never hurried, the work is given ample room to breathe and blossom. Falletta and the Buffalo forces really capture the spirit of the work, and Weiss is a tremendous soloist, giving the solo line a sense of purpose and care that I suspect will surprise many listeners. Another critic called this "Bernstein without the cuts" and I think that's fairly accurate. Certainly it's one of the more loving renditions with full orchestra that I've heard. The whole disc has spectacular sound – although my copy has an odd swishing sound between tracks – and everyone gives 100 percent. Really, both discs from this team deserve your attention. You'll see Gershwin in a new way.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman