Fall 1998 Volume XXVIII, No. 1
Rethinking the Rhapsody
by Richard Crawford
New Music Notes
Time to Remember Zez Confrey by Artis Wodehouse
Behind the Beat
Widening the Lens II
A Centenary Moment?
by Stephen Banfield
Gershwin on Disc
Country and Gospel Notes
Gershwin on Disc
by Edward A. Berlin
On my first Internet search for Gershwin CDs, I came up with 531 hits. I concluded that the present survey could get by with a more modest sampling.
George Gershwin is a familiar presence to most of us. His collaborations with his brother Ira join the songs of Berlin, Porter, Kern, Arlen, Rodgers, and a few others in forming the core of what has been anointed “the American pop standards.” Cabaret and pop singers touch us with Gershwin’s playful insinuations of flirtation and love and delight us with his humor. Jazz musicians explore the twistings and surprises of Gershwin melodies and harmonies more than those of any other composer. His orchestral concert works are among the most frequently heard American compositions, his smaller piano pieces are gems that never pale, and Porgy and Bess remains the most performed of any American opera. George Gershwin embodies an important part of our national identity and spirit.
The magic of re-released vintage recordings gives us the opportunity to encounter Gershwin through his own recordings: commercial releases, informal recordings, and radio airchecks. Among CDs that contain this invaluable material are a two-disc set from Pearl, George Gershwin Plays George Gershwin (GEMM CDS 9483); a single disc on Jazz Heritage, Gershwin Performs Gershwin: Rare Recordings 1931-1935 (512923A); and part of one disc in the Smithsonian four-disc set I Got Rhythm–The Music of George Gershwin (RD 107).
We read glowing accounts in biographical literature of how the party-going Gershwin presided at the piano. But the glimpses we receive from recordings do not live up to those reports. They reveal playing that could be sloppy and imprecise. Though his music was decidedly jazzy, he was not in the same league with such associates as James P. Johnson. But he played with spirit, excitement, and imagination. Hearing him recalls his comments favoring staccato and brittle renditions that snap and crackle. (He wrote this in the introduction to George Gershwin’s Song- Book, his piano arrangements of eighteen songs.) Snap and crackle certainly characterize his sound. But should even his bluesy Prelude II crackle so? The published score specifies a metronome marking of 88 for a quarter-note. In a recording from 1928 (on the Pearl CD), he plays it at a brisk 100, and in a Rudy Vallée radio broadcast from 1932 (Jazz Heritage), he sprints through it at about 120. No pianist today could get away with such a performance. We listen to it only because it is Gershwin himself and because, even if we don’t hear the magic, he may still have something to teach us.
We cannot get quite as close to Gershwin in his piano rolls, of which he made more than a hundred. These apparently reveal the notes he intended and usually reflect his style, but one can never be sure of the part played by roll editing. Gershwin might not have even made all the rolls attributed to him. On occasion, other pressing concerns may have led him to authorize one Robert Armbruster to fill in, using the Gershwin name.
Rolls, therefore, provide an inexact measure of Gershwin, but they remain intriguing artifacts of the era. Of the most interesting samples on CD, I recommend the digitized realizations of Artis Wodehouse in Gershwin Plays Gershwin–The Piano Rolls (Vol. 1: Nonesuch 79287; Vol. 2: Nonesuch 79370). Volume one consists entirely of Gershwin compositions, including Rhapsody in Blue. All except the two-disklavier version of An American in Paris are ascribed to his playing. Volume two demonstrates another side of Gershwin: only two compositions are his, with the balance focusing on how he played and arranged other songwriters’ music.
Modern pianists’ performances cover a wide range of styles and rarely follow Gershwin’s stated preferences. William Bolcom captures the Gershwin spirit in his renditions of the Song-Book arrangements and assorted short piano pieces on George Gershwin Piano Music & Songs by George and Ira Gershwin (Nonesuch 79151). Richard Glazier provides a decidedly romantic view with his beautifully and lushly played Gershwin: Remembrance and Discovery (Centaur CRC 2271). This CD includes the Preludes, several Earl Wild and Percy Grainger arrangements, and some marvelous Beryl Rubinstein arrangements of selected songs from Porgy and Bess, probably recorded for the first time. Is Glazier wrong to play in a style at such odds with the composer’s stated intention? Room exists for alternate approaches, and Glazier’s certainly works for our age. For a beguiling and richly luxurious interpretation of Gershwin, one could hardly do better.
Michael Tilson Thomas takes a few piano solos on George Gershwin: Los Angeles Philharmonic (CBS MK39699), and they are typical of what we have come to expect of this artist: expressive, daring, at times electrifying, and certainly controversial. A case in point is his version of the Prelude II, which he takes at a languid 1/4 = 60, fully half the speed of Gershwin’s 1932 recording. Yet, under Thomas’s hands, the music is dramatic and effective.
* * *
Vintage recordings by the original stage artists singing these songs provide an education. Fred Astaire was already a consummate artist with his relaxed, natural singing style. Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards also impresses with his laid-back, almost-jazzy rendition of “Fascinating Rhythm” in the 1924 show Lady, Be Good!.
In contrast, the women stage performers, though widely praised in their day, sound surprisingly bad by today’s standards. Fred’s sister Adele, however adept she may have been as a dancing partner, was a weak, squeaky-voiced soprano. Irene Bordoni, extolled as “a top” in one of the versions of Cole Porter’s classic song, was not much better. Even Gertrude Lawrence, celebrated as a great, charismatic actress of the musical comedy stage, comes across poorly on record. (The vintage sets mentioned above, and an additional collection–S’Wonderful: The Music of George Gershwin, on Pavilion CD 9777–include samples of these performances.)
As scholars of the period, we are curious about these forgotten shows, and Nonesuch has filled a need with several fascinating reconstructions. Each includes a substantial booklet providing synopsis, essays, and lyrics. Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike Up the Band (1927, with additions from the 1930 production), and Girl Crazy (1930) (Nonesuch 79308, 79361, 79273, 79250 respectively) are marvelous. In Lady, Be Good!, Ann Morrison emulates the squeaky-voice flavor of the original, but with far greater singing quality. In contrast, the producer of Oh, Kay! does not try to recreate the questionable skills of the original, relying instead on the superb artistry of Dawn Upshaw. Both for the number of hit tunes and signs of the gradual stylistic slide toward a more modern aesthetic, my favorite is Girl Crazy, with Lorna Luft (sounding uncannily like her mother, Judy Garland) as a terrific female lead. The overriding impression of all four reconstructions is consistent with what I have already suggested: most of the familiar tunes, “Oh, Lady Be Good!,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “The Man I Love,” etc., sound strangely unlike the classic songs we know. This is not a shortcoming of the recordings, for the performances generally look to the original styles for guidance. Rather, the recordings demonstrate how dramatically aesthetic standards have changed.
* * *
One can find innumerable Gershwin recordings by other outstanding and popular artists. Joan Morris, included on the Smithsonian disc with her husband William Bolcom and ragtime legend Max Morath, tops off her husband’s CD of Gershwin piano music (above) with ten songs. This is cabaret singing with style, singing that draws one into the music. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, two of the supreme stylists of popular song, teamed up for a Porgy and Bess set (Verve 827 475-2) that makes no pretence at operatic or dramatic presentation, but offers a great selection of songs. These recordings are all examples of the performance tradition that has made Gershwin part of the American psyche.
* * *
Maurice Peress recreates the entire Aeolian Hall concert of 1924 in The Birth of the Rhapsody in Blue (Music Masters 01612-65144-2), including the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues” and Zez Confrey’s novelty piano solos. Peress uses the precise instrumentation of the original Rhapsody and restores some piano cadenza passages. His treatment stands out for the style of playing he gets from prominent instruments–the clarinet, the trombone, the muted trumpet, saxophones, and banjo. Containing many interesting details, the recording merits consideration.
Michael Tilson Thomas’s electrifying version of Rhapsody in Blue on the CBS Los Angeles Philharmonic disc also presents reduced forces and focuses attention on special instrumental colors. Its brisk tempos, bright sound, and overall brilliance combine to make it a thrilling performance.
* * *
Today, we are fortunate in having a choice between two exceptional performances of Porgy and Bess: that of the Houston Grand Opera (RCA RCD3-2109) conducted by John DeMain, and the more recent Glyndebourne Festival Opera performance (EMI 56220) conducted by Simon Rattle. I give an edge to the Glyndebourne production, but they both thrillingly demonstrate that this is, indeed, an opera with substance.
Five hundred and ten CDs discovered on my original Internet search remain unreviewed. However, even this surface scratch demonstrates the abundance and variety of Gershwin performances on CD. Clearly, riches abound to fill any need or taste.