This live recording of Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody for piano and orchestra was made on New Year’s Day 2005…
I never really think of concerts ending up on a CD. You know that quite a few are recorded for radio but being fixed on disc forever is not something you contemplate. Which is a good thing, I think, especially when you play something for the first time, like this was.
Written in 1930-31, the Second Rhapsody is overshadowed by Gershwin’s ‘other’ Rhapsody – in Blue – and the Concerto in F. How do you think it compares?
It’s a cool piece, isn’t it? I didn’t know it, though I’ve played the Rhapsody in Blue quite a bit and the Concerto in F maybe 50 or 60 times – it was my debut piece. When I got the score and listened to it, well it’s fabulous. Maybe it’s not as immediately striking as the other two pieces, but it’s a gorgeous piece and a wonderful surprise.
The piece is nicknamed the Rhapsody in Rivets for the New York cityscapes that inspired it, and this concert version grew out of one Gershwin penned for a Hollywood musical. How much do you think of the background when you’re performing?
You don’t. When you practise it, of course you’re aware of the background. The beginning is wonderful with this ‘Rivet’ theme, the piano hammering out the spirit of New York being built in the 1930s. It’s glorious to play. But Gershwin himself said he wasn’t out to write programme music. While you’re sitting on stage you’re hoping to play as well as possible and enjoy it.
How hard is it to play?
It’s very rhapsodic and it’s rather tricky, I have to say. In a way the Concerto in F is almost technically easier than either this Rhapsody or Rhapsody in Blue – they are very outwardly virtuoso and physical. After some slogging at the piano it works well pianistically, though some bits do remain awkward and you just have to go for it.
Do you have any favourite moments?
Not really. I like the whole thing. It was completely new to me. I have a little bit of a weird background [for a pianist], as I was a jazz drummer. I started when I was little, and I got, I suppose, reasonably good at the drums. When I made my debut recording for Decca, they thought, ‘hey, he has this special background, let’s have him play Gershwin’. I became associated with Gershwin, which is in a way a bit dangerous as I played everything – you know, Bach, Scarlatti and Chopin.
So have you tried to break away from this association?
Earl Wild was a sensational Gershwin pianist – I love his song transcriptions – and curiously his career suffered a little because of it. Stupidly, people think if you play Gershwin you can’t really play Beethoven. That’s completely wrong. If you’re a serious, sensitive musician you can play both well. I spend my life with Bach and Beethoven, and I enjoy Gershwin as well. I don’t see why you can’t hold both hands.
What else are you performing at the moment?
It’s so funny that this recording of Gershwin comes out now, as I’m learning all Mozart’s piano concertos. I had a tour with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie a few months ago, and we did Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G with Louis Langrée conducting – it was an eye-opening experience. Very rarely do you sit on stage and feel happy and content; we all practise so much so that we can maybe occasionally feel joy on stage, but this was just wonderful. From Gershwin to Mozart… why not?
Interview by Rebecca Franks