Classical CD Reviews
GERSHWIN: Complete Music for Piano & Orchestra – Rhapsody in Blue; 2nd Rhapsody; I Got Rhythm Variations; Piano Concerto in F – Anne-Marie McDermott/ Dallas Sym./Justin Brown – Bridge GERSHWIN: Original Works and Transcriptions – Ralph Votapec, p. – BGR
Published on October 26, 2008
GEORGE GERSHWIN: Original Works and Transcriptions – Promenade; From the Gershwin Songbook: Seven arrangements; Three Preludes; Grand Fantasy on Themes from Porgy and Bess (Gershwin-Wild); Two from Seven Virtuoso Etudes (Gershwin-Wild) – Ralph Votapek, piano – Blue Griffin Recording BGR139, 1 hour [Distr. by Albany] *****:
The first of these fine albums brings us the two works for piano and orchestra upon which Gershwin’s fame as a serious classical composer rests – the Rhapsody and the Piano Concerto – perhaps American in Paris, which features the piano less, should also be included in that. Everyone presumably has at least one Rhapsody in their collection but this one really sizzles. The same goes for the terrific Piano Concerto, which provided the only really enjoyable time I passed practicing for a concert when I majored in piano in college. There are several excellent versions on CD – I especially like the effort conducted by of – all people – Mitch Miller. And we’ve covered at least a couple terrific SACD versions – Jon Nakamitsu on HM and Michel Camilo on Telarc. There’s also the 3-channel Living Stereo RCA SACD with Earl Wild as the soloist; he happens to be responsible for the two infrequently-heard Gershwin arrangements performed by Ms. McDermott here. The McDermott recording was made in the fine acoustics of the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas just last year. The conductor is the up and coming British Music Director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. If you’re not set up for SACD playback, this CD would be a perfect route to having fine versions of all of Gershwin’s piano and orchestra works in one package.
Ralph Votapek has been connected with Gershwin’s music thruout his long career. At age 17 he performed Rhapsody in Blue in Milwaukee with Paul Whiteman – who had urged Gershwin to create the work and conducted its premiere – conducting. Votapek also won awards in the very first Van Cliburn Piano Competition, recorded the Second Rhapsody with Arthur Fielder on London Records, and has made many recordings of a wide repertory on the Ivory Classics label.
Gershwin published his famous Songbook in 1932. Along with reprinting the original sheet music with lyrics of 18 of his many hundreds of songs, it included his extremely virtuosic arrangements and ornamentations of them – patterned on the spontaneous improvisations he played at parties and events at the drop of a hat. Some are so intricate they sound almost like two pianos. Votapec has a great jazz-influenced feel about his playing not only these but all the Gershwin piano works on the disc. The Three Preludes were the only straight solo piano pieces as such which Gershwin ever composed and had published. They provide a distillation of his unique style; the slow one, No. 2, is frequently heard in transcriptions for various solo instruments with piano. There have been many solo piano and piano trio medleys of music from Gershwin’s great American opera Porgy and Bess (I’m especially fond of Don Shirley’s). Earl Wild’s dozen-movement suite of transcriptions from the opera are influenced by the style of the late 19th century/early 20th century piano transcriptions, in which the pianist-arranger specializes. This disc makes a fine pair with the piano-and-orchestra CD, covering both aspects of the genius of George Gershwin.
– John Sunier