In this month in history… Gershwin gave the world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue. You can find out more about that auspicious occasion in this month's BBC Music Magazine. Once you've refamiliarised yourself with this Gershwin classic, we've compiled a list of some fabulous recordings to move onto next.
From its famous opening clarinet wail to the gorgeous melody that provides its romantic climax, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is an iconic part of American music. Commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman (the self-proclaimed ‘King of Jazz’), its 1924 premiere caused a sensation with its audacious mix of jaunty syncopation, infectious tunes and sophisticated piano virtuosity. The Rhapsody’s crossover triumph affirmed its 25-year-old composer’s belief that ‘jazz is an idiom not to be limited to a mere song and chorus’, and it has remained a staple of the concerto repertoire ever since, with recordings pouring out unabated. Most use the 1942 setting for full orchestra made by Paul Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé, but more and more performers have returned to Grofé’s original jazz band score, which Gershwin himself played and recorded with the Whiteman band. And colourful alternatives abound, including a three-minute version for harmonica band – tributes to the abiding popularity of Gershwin’s masterpiece.
Gershwin Second Rhapsody
Six years after he’d premiered Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin found himself writing a ‘Manhatten Rhapsody’ for inclusion in a film called Delicious. The movie itself has largely disappeared from view, but the music still gets the occasional hearing thanks to Gershwin’s decision to extend it into his 12-minute Second Rhapsody. Scored, like Rhapsody in Blue, for piano and orchestra/big band, it has a similarly ebullient opening, its pounding rhythm likened by the composer to the sound of construction workers hammering rivets into a girder. There follows a more lyrical ‘Brahms Theme’ (also Gershwin’s description) before we are returned to the streets of the Big Apple for a rumbustious close.
Freddy Kempf (piano); Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton
BIS BISSACD 1940
Ravel Piano Concerto
Early in 1928, Ravel toured the US, hearing jazz in both Harlem and New Orleans and meeting Gershwin in New York. He was sufficiently impressed by Gershwin’s talent to suggest he should study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. Gershwin never did, though Ravel clearly took a ‘lesson’ or two from Gershwin’s music. In Ravel’s jazz-inspired Piano Concerto in G major, a Gershwin-style theme appears unmistakably in the first movement – a rising song-like idea first presented by the soloist and given luscious scoring at its re-appearance. Yet that theme also includes something of Ravel’s own wistful vein, plus a hint of the following slow movement’s glorious Mozart-style theme.
Krystian Zimerman (piano); Cleveland Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
DG 449 2132
Grofé Piano Concerto
Ferde Grofé doesn’t get enough credit today for his work on Rhapsody in Blue – as Gershwin acknowledged, it was thanks to Grofé’s superbly inventive orchestrations that the Rhapsody became such an instant hit. As a composer in his own right, Grofé is best known for his similarly colourful Mississippi Suite (1925) and Grand Canyon Suite (1931) but try also his rarely heard Piano Concerto of 1960. Consisting of just one 15-minute movement, Grofé combines a grand Romantic vision with lighter touches that give a hint of his theatre band past. It doesn’t always convince but, for curiosity’s sake alone, is certainly worth a listen.
Jesús Maria Sanromá (piano); Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra/Ferde Grofé
Copland Piano Concerto
Completed in 1926, Copland’s Piano Concerto was the work of a composer very familiar with the idiom and techniques of jazz. According to Copland, jazz had two basic moods – ‘the slow blues and the snappy number’ – and those moods are reflected in the two movements of his Concerto. Alas, when he played it at its premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, the reception was decidedly chilly. The passing years, however, have treated it more favourably, and rightly so – that ‘snappy’, rowdy second movement
swings with infectious zeal.
Benjamin Pasternack (piano); Elgin Symphony Orchestra/Robert Hanson
Mathieu Rhapsodie Romantique
OK, so his nickname of the ‘Canadian Mozart’ might be overstating it, but André Mathieu’s death at just 39 did raise questions as to just what might have been – on seeing the 12-year-old Mathieu play in 1941, Rachmaninov had described him as ‘a genius, more so than I am’. In turn, the long, arching melodies of Mathieu’s 1958 Rhapsodie Romantique for piano and orchestra would appear to pay homage to the great Russian. But amid this Romantic wallow, a melody of Gershwin-like jauntiness pops its head up here and there, and the brassy, triumphant finale has Rhapsody in Blue stamped all over it.
Alain Lefèvre (pno); Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/Matthias Bamert
Analekta AN 2 9277
Féderico Jusid Tango Rhapsody
Now this is a lot of fun. Premiered at Progetto Martha Argerich in Lugano in 2010, Féderico Jusid’s 20-minute romp for two pianos and orchestra depicts the daily ups and downs of your average young couple – the high jinks and dark moods, the furious fallings out and smoochy reconciliations that follow. The ‘Tango’ of the title pretty much sums up the core of the 40-year-old Argentinian’s ingenious piece, but there is much besides, including all sorts of shenanigans in the percussion, wah-wahing trumpets, and some madcap keyboard antics from the two soloists that culminate in a fast and furious finale.
Duo Lechner Tiempo (pianos); Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Jacek Kaspszyk
Avanti AVANTI 10332
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine.