“American Piano Concertos” = GERSHWIN: Concerto in F; COPLAND: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; BARBER: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra – Xiayin Wang, p./ Royal Scottish National Orchestra/ Peter Oundjian – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5128, 75:44 [10/29/13] (Distr. by Naxos) *****:
An interesting trio of piano concertos in excellent performances. This is the latest of at least seven album from the Chinese pianist, including two on the Chandos label: one of Rachmaninov works and the other of piano pieces by Earl Wild. The also excellent notes tie together the three composers and works. Gershwin was a superb Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who sought success as a classical composer, Copland was the other way around in his dabbling in jazz (which he gave up in 1928) and Barber was trained in Rome, unlike the studies of the other two in Paris, and was of a more Romantic temperament, with some touches of jazz influence.
The recording of Gershwin’s sequel to the Rhapsody in Blue is a detailed and strongly-felt performance by Wang and the regular conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Every note is clearly presented here, unlike some of the competing recordings. I must say Chandos gives the full audiophile treatment to the gong in the last movement of the Concerto in F, which in the movie An American in Paris marked the moment in Oscar Levant’s performance of the work that the composer had supposedly died. I still prefer the impetus and virtuosity of the Earl Wild recording with Fiedler’s Boston Pops on a three-channel RCA Living Stereo SACD (though as good a gong), and with an almost-too-fast final movement. The versions by Peter Nero and Jon Nakamatsu are also very good.
Although I played the Gershwin concerto at my senior recital in college, I wasn’t that familiar with either of the other two concertos and appreciate having them in such fabulous performances and sonics. The Copland was not at all well received when first premiered. It was sort of the composer’s answer to Rhapsody in Blue and was felt by one critic “to mock American music.” But Leonard Bernstein was responsible for its resurrection and it now seems like a throwback to the Jazz Age.
The Barber concerto won a Pulitzer Prize and was written for pianist John Browning. It has echoes of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and pleased Russian audiences during a Browning tour there. This late 1962 work of Barber has more atonality than most of his compositions, and requires great virtuosity of the piano soloist.
While auditioning this SACD I was completing reading the new book by our reviewer Robert Moon: Copland, Gershwin & Bernstein – Celebrating American Diversity [ISBN 978-0-9834370-7-9]. It is in large type and only 46 pages long. The three essays on the connected American composers are fascinating reading, with plenty of descriptions of their music and their personal lives. I picked up many new details of which I was unaware. I was surprised to learn some of the unpleasant details of Gershwin’s and Bernstein’s lives, such as the former’s brother and his wife not believing Gershwin’s complaints of headaches and problems connected with his to-be-fatal brain tumor, and the effect of the latter’s homosexual lifestyle on his marriage. He also stresses the effect of their music on his life, and I can say the same for mine. Moon ends his musical portraits and the impact on American music of the three with a list of recommended recordings of the composers’ works.