Have we all got Gershwin wrong?

From the Lebrecht Album of the Week:

On first hearing, this seemed nothing special – a Russian-Jewish pianist, Kirill Gerstein, tackling the two Gershwin concertos with the all-American St Louis orchestra. Worthy cultural diplomacy but nothing that immediately gripped the ear. It took a second spin to grasp the truly challenging aspects of this undertaking.

Gerstein takes the jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue and bends the rhythms in such a way that they sound almost Jewish….

Read on here.

And here.

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  • Call me picky or superficial, but I wouldn’t buy this disc because of its presentation:

    — other composers’ work included
    — Summertime listed as “featuring” its soprano
    — soprano listed as “vocals”
    — soprano’s name, Storm Large, had me thinking of someone in the news
    — “Piano” and “Conductor” capitalized after artists’ names
    — conductor name listed above the orchestra
    — three dumb sentences of sales text tattooed on the back cover

    Not for my collection, no matter how good the musicianship. Sorry.

  • Congrats to Kirill for his performance, and no doubt, the lighter score adds to the klezmer touch, similar to the original 1924 recording which we can now enjoy on YouTube. Kudos to the clarinetist too! The Jewish dances for example the Freylach and the kazotzky are definitely part of this montage fusion of culture between George’s roots and the American landscape. No doubt these players listened to the 1924 recording and have the score. However, the annotated Alicia Zizzo printing from the late 1990s contains other sources, missing measures from the original scoring which she had access to in the 1990s, and redefines rhythmic issues which are written one way and played another – even by Gershwin. Gershwin notated a few places which hardly gets played according to his rhythmic notation. Not sure why. I love the personal touches Kirill does, like the shaking octaves at 7:11 and 7:58 though it’s not indicated, and even makes the syncopated rhythm at 7:30 make sense even though swing didn’t come for another decade. Although we love playing this with a full size symphony orchestra, as long as the orchestra applies the similar mindset of this original lighter Klezmer sound, the piece can make the same impression as Gershwin intended. Gershwin’s own playing owned a straightforward, non-sentimental driving force which has not been replicated since his own performances we have on recording, which is what it is. One might take in the YouTube audio interview with Ferde Grofe discussing that the famous E Major theme is not what Gershwin had originally when he played it through for Grofe for the first time. Grofe was not happy with what was in the score, and asked Gershwin for something else, and he pulled out some tune he wrote several years earlier. That ended up being the theme Grofe wanted the next morning. Great story directly from the source. On a personal note, the Zizzo score transformed everything I knew about the Rhapsody and the original measures made perfect sense and holds the piece together. Kirill’s performance is splendid and with this smaller ensemble brings forth the sound, structure and feeling of the piece in the lighthearted way Gershwin intended. We can truly hear the instrumentation transparently as Gershwin intended. (I don’t think bending the rhythms make it sound ‘Jewish’. It makes it sound like the Swing Era of the 1930s, which many pianists do, but did not exist at the time Gershwin wrote the piece rather quickly in three weeks time in early 1924. What makes it sound ‘Jewish’ is the instrumentation, the lesser number of players, the wonderful ‘quasi klezmer’ touch the clarinetist gives to the part – yet the 1924 recording does so even more, understandably – and the ability to play the piece as a whole much lighter due to the smaller forces. It brings out the Jewish dances, which gives it that feeling. But honestly, Gershwin’s intention was to make it a universal piece, one which fuses many cultures, the art of song, melody, rhythm and his love of the New York pulse in the 1920s.)

  • Yes, you are correct about that. There is, however, a difference between slightly bending the rhythmic rubber band in a vocal way so the notes are not perfectly strictly pulsed, and yet something entirely different with a dotted note followed by a shorter note which is ‘swing era’ playing. Gershwin’s music and playing was actually much closer to ragtime, which tremendously inspires ones approach to playing his music. Take his Novelette in Fourths, and the quick paced sections of the Rhapsody. It is, in essence, ragtime style. His Impromptu in Two Keys from 1924 is written out ‘swing’ which bends like the leaves, but shouldn’t be played strictly straight eighths. This is a lecture/recital in itself. What we have to remember most importantly, is that Gershwin was, first and foremost, a songwriter. Singing the melodies out loud will often be our best guide for the interpretation.

  • There’s a decent performance of Earl Wild’s arrangement of Embraceable you on this album. Very well recorded too.

      • Thank you for your kind comments about Earl. He is dearly missed. There are three of his Virtuoso Etudes based on the songs of Gershwin on that disc.

  • Nice to see so much respect and curiosity about original intent. The Rhapsody has always been oft-recorded but years ago this kind of searching would have been hard to imagine.

    Technological note: The 1924 recording was acoustic: George and the band played into an enormous horn connected to the cutting needle. Signal-to-noise and frequency response are as you might imagine, horrible. The 1925 recording marked the arrival of the (ribbon) microphone in commercial recording. The improvement is remarkable.

    An OT treat:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EX6ORP0E1CY

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