WORKS: Catfish Row – Symphonic Suite; An American in Paris; Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’; Girl Crazy – Overture; Strike Up the Band– Overture
PERFORMER: Howard Shelley (piano)BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9325 DDD
Dead before forty, jazz pianist, Broadway genius, Tin Pan Alley star, a songster to equal Schubert: what an extraordinary man George Gershwin (1898-1937) was. Prohibition America was his day-to-day world, the intoxication of postwar Europe via the old transatlantic Cunarders his playground. Rhapsody in Blue brought him overnight fame (1924). He hobnobbed with the likes of Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Walton, Berg (spring 1928). Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden – the cast and pit band of Girl Crazy – partied with him (October 1930). Even more than his contemporary, Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland, his reputation was for making ‘something new and yet also immediately accessible out of the clashing and combining of the “serious” and “popular” traditions by which nearly all early 20th-century composers were surrounded’ (Keith Potter). He succeeded quite brilliantly.
This new album usefully brings together two scintillating show overtures (orchestrated by Don Rose), the impressionistic tone poem An American in Paris, and Catfish Row (Gershwin’s own unpublished 1935-6 symphonic adaptations of music from Porgy and Bess, complete with honky-tonk piano, banjo, exotic percussion and an agitated fugue). Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic positively revel, with an outstandingly competitive, virtuoso-gilded American, and plenty of naturally idiomatic gloss elsewhere. Great stuff. In the Girl Crazy-derived I Got Rhythm variations (according to Gershwin’s biographer Charles Schwartz, ‘six spindly, powder-puff variations, none of which would hurt a fly’) Howard Shelley is politely self-effacing and has less to say. Ates Orga