Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On disc: Gershwin via Grofé

Gershwin-Grofé: "Rhapsody in Blue," Piano Concerto in F major; Gershwin: "I Got Rhythm" Variations – Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop (Decca B0014091-02)

This disc will stir some Richmonders’ memories. On Oct. 17, 1988, Marin Alsop, at the time the Richmond Symphony’s newly minted assistant conductor, led a program of long-lost orchestrations of George Gershwin’s concert and show music. The highlight was the Piano Concerto in F major, as orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, who had orchestrated "Rhapsody in Blue" for its 1924 premiere with Paul Whiteman’s jazz band, and would produce the familiar symphonic orchestration of the rhapsody in the 1940s, after Gershwin’s death.

Alsop subsequently led a recording of the Grofé-orchestrated concerto, with pianist Leslie Stifelman, who had performed in the Richmond concert. (That 1993 EMI Classics disc is available on an ArkivMusic reissue: www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=167254)

Now, Alsop returns to the Gershwin-Grofé scores with her Baltimore Symphony and Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the piano soloist.

Thibaudet is the big-time concert pianist of choice for jazz and jazz-inflected compositions. His interpretations of Bill Evans and Duke Ellington echo in these performances, especially in Gershwin’s more lyrical material, which few pianists on record have phrased as flexibly. Thibaudet’s interpretive bent, as well as the rarely heard Grofé version of the Gershwin concerto, make this disc unique.

Grofé was working with an ensemble that was hardly a symphony orchestra; but Whiteman's group also was unlike later jazz bands in that it had strings and more "orchestral" wind choirs and percussion. The sound texture of the ensemble was edgier and more transparent than that of swing-era bands, and less plush than a symphony orchestra’s.

Gershwin exploited this hybrid orchestral sound in the rhapsody; but he had symphonic forces in mind when composing – and preparing his own orchestration of – the concerto. Grofé’s orchestration, made for Whiteman, was not approved by the composer, and went unplayed for more than 50 years after Gershwin’s death.

Thibaudet and Alsop make a persuasive case for the Grofé-orchestrated concerto; but this piece is almost certainly destined for a half-life as an alternative version (for one thing, few orchestras are going to bring in the extra saxophones it requires). It’s different enough, and Thibaudet’s interpretation is distinctive enough, to earn this disc shelf space alongside a standard version. (The vintage RCA Victor recordings by pianist Earl Wild with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops still pace the pack.)

The Thibaudet-Alsop readings of the "jazz-band" version of "Rhapsody in Blue" holds its own against competitors such as Michael Tilson Thomas (RCA and Sony Classical), Lincoln Mayorga (Harmonia Mundi) and Peter Donohoe (EMI Classics); and this production’s use of the original manuscript version of the "I Got Rhythm" Variations is a plus, albeit a minor one.

These recordings, from concerts last November at Baltimore’s Meyerhoff Hall, offer good concert-hall aural perspective.

From ArkivMusic:

From Amazon.com: