A guide to the best recordings of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
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’), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue 1924 premiere caused a sensation with its audacious mix of jaunty syncopation, infectious tunes and sophisticated piano virtuosity.
The Rhapsody‘s crossover triumph affairmed 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 of 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.
Words by Geoffrey Smith
The best full symphony orchestra version
Recordings of the symphony orchestra versions of Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F are not exactly few and far between. So who to choose? André Previn started out as a jazz artist in the 1950s and so is very much on home ground in this repertoire, as can be heard in his 1971 recording of both works in which he directs the LSO from the piano.
The finest original jazz version
The French pianist recorded Rhapsody in Blue in Paul Whiteman’s jazz ensemble version in 2010 – in Thibaudet’s own words: ‘Gershwin basically has very few strings – only violins and double basses, no violas, cellos and so on. Then there are trumpets, saxophones, banjos, a whole different kind of percussion. It makes it sound quite different and you don’t hear it in that version very often.’ This is a rip-roaring performance.
For sheer jazz exhuberance
Marcus Roberts is one of surprisingly few jazz pianists to have recorded Rhapsody in Blue. Here, recorded in 1996 on his Portraits in Blue album for Sony Classical, he strays a little away from the original – tempos are pushed and pulled and, in the best jazz tradition, large sections are improvised. No matter, however, as this is a hugely engaging listen.
Something a little different…
Rhapsody in Blue for mouth organ? Yep. Larry Adler performed the work in this form with Gershwin himself in 1934, provoking the latter to comment ‘The Goddam thing sounds as if I wrote it for you!’ Sixty-five years later the two joined up for a recording, with the real-life Adler being accompanied by the long-dead composer in the form of a piano roll.
A jazz reinvention
Taking even more liberties than Marcus Roberts, Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith’s lengthy jazz set stretches Rhapsody in Blue to just under an hour long. The main themes from Gershwin’s original are all recognisably there in this live performance by Smith and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, but so is much else – Cuban dance, drums solos and kitchen sink included. Great fun.