Gershwin: Concerto in F (CD review)

Also, Rhapsody No. 2; I Got Rhythm Variations. Orion Weiss, piano; JoAnn Falletta, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.559705.

American composer George Gershwin (1890-1937) made his name in the musical world in 1924 with Rhapsody in Blue, in which he fused American jazz and classical orchestral music. It probably seemed unique at the time, and it certainly proved influential. But maybe folks back then had already forgotten that the American pianist and composer Louis Gottschalk had done much the same thing some half a century earlier with his Night in the Tropics symphony and Latin American Symphonette. Be that as it may, audiences loved what Gershwin did, and in the following thirteen years before his untimely death, he practically changed the way people would look at serious music forever, with the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, the Cuban Overture, the opera Porgy and Bess, and a whole series of film and Broadway show songs.

In the present album American pianist Orion Weiss, conductor JoAnn Falletta, and the Buffalo Philharmonic present three of Gershwin's most-famous creations, the Concerto in F, the Rhapsody No. 2, and the I Got Rhythm Variations. Although I was not familiar with Mr. Weiss's playing, I have been an admirer of Ms. Falletta's work in Buffalo for some time and looked forward to their collaboration. They did not disappoint me.

Gershwin wrote his Concerto in F in 1925, and in its way it's a bit odd, the piano never quite dominating the proceedings the way you would expect in a concerto. An Allegro opens the piece in a big, robust, sweeping fashion, with Weiss and Falletta leading the way in a forward drive they sustain wonderfully. Supposedly, the Concerto in F was Gershwin's way of saying he could write a "proper" concerto after the popular success of Rhapsody in Blue a year before. The fact is, the Concerto is not as melodic as the Rhapsody, which is probably why it is not as memorable, yet the two works bear a marked resemblance to one another.

The second-movement Adagio evokes the languorous, soulful mood of a nocturne, particularly in the bluesy segment for trumpet and cornet and then in a more breezy and buoyant section when the piano enters. As Gershwin was a fan of Chopin, who wrote so many nocturnes, the similarities would seem appropriate. When the piano does appear, Weiss maintains a good, jaunty, yet poetic cadence.

Then the finale takes up where the first movement left off, big and brassy, Weiss's piano displaying a bravura temperament. Weiss shows us he's a spirited Gershwin interpreter, and one hope he returns for more.

Next up is the Rhapsody No. 2, which Gershwin wrote in 1931 for a Hollywood film, Delicious, with Janet Gaynor. The studio wanted the music to represent the hustle and bustle of New York City, prompting the composer originally to call it Rhapsody in Rivets. Fortunately, he changed his mind about that one. Here, everyone involved with the performance is again in top form, and the piece bubbles over with extravagant, effervescent enthusiasm.

Gershwin wrote the I Got Rhythm Variations for Piano and Orchestra in 1934 for a concert tour celebrating the tenth anniversary of Rhapsody in Blue. It would be the last composition he would fully orchestrate. He based the variations on the tune of the same name from his 1930 hit musical Girl Crazy, the variations marking various musical styles from waltz to Chinese to Arabesque. Weiss, Falletta, and the orchestra handle all of it with ease and practically bring down the rafters.

Naxos recorded the music in Kleinhaus Concert Hall, Buffalo, New York, in November of 2010. It's something a little different for the company in that rather than the warm and slightly veiled sound we often hear from Naxos recordings, this one is very open, very clear, very clean, and very transparent. Coupled with a huge dynamic range, strong transient impact, and deep, taut bass, the results are often startlingly realistic. The piano is somewhat close, true, but it fits in well with the rest of the sonics.


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