GERSHWIN: Concerto in F; Rhapsody No. 2; I Got Rhythm Variations – Orion Weiss, piano/ Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/ JoAnn Falletta – Naxos multichannel audio-only Blu-ray NBD0025, 58:39 ***½:
This is the latest in Naxos’ attempt to make audio-only Blu-ray the format of choice for hi-res and multichannel classical music, rather than SACD, which they gave up on. There is no video to speak of, though for the first time I noticed that the screen display of the titles and timings does have a light behind it that slowly moves from one side of the screen to the other while the music plays.
I’m pretty familiar with the Concerto in F, having performed it in college and it being my favorite piano concerto. Gershwin had major help from Ferde Grofe in orchestrating his Rhapsody in Blue, but for this concerto he had studied thoroughly and was able to create a “proper concerto” by himself, and then some. Actually, he hadn’t yet begun study with composer-teachers such as Cowell, Riegger and Schoenberg – with the press of a deadline he just loaded up on books on music theory, concerto form and orchestration and taught himself. He did a great job. Conductor Walter Damrosch had commissioned the work from Gershwin. William Walton—a great orchestrator himself— adored Gershwin’s orchestration of the concerto and Stravinsky said it was the work of a genius.
The first movement opens with the timpani loudly proclaiming elements of the main theme. Sections of great delicacy alternate with those of impressive grandiosity. The middle movement is blues-influenced, with gorgeous melodies. The closing movement is rapid and highly energetic, with hints of ragtime, and a lengthy and very final-sounding wrap up. The Rhapsody was originally called a Rhapsody in Rivets, and describes the construction of some of the Manhattan cityscape. Gershwin’s final full movie score was for Girl Crazy, and from it he adapted his last full score, the I Got Rhythm Variations.
The Blu-ray is sourced from a 96K/24-bit PCM multichannel master. Leaving aside the question of whether these audio-only Blu-rays are superior to SACD sourced from DSD (there has been technical evidence that lossless does not necessarily equate to absolutely no effect on the original sonics), I compared the Blu-ray to a couple of my other favorite Concertos in Fs on SACD: Earl Wild with the Boston Pops on the three-channel RCA Living Stereo 82876-61393-2, and Michel Camilo with the Barcelona Symphony and Ernest Martinez Izquierdo on Telarc 63611. I found that next to the landmark 1961 Wild/Fiedler recording and even the Michel Camilo surround SACD, the Orion Weiss version sounded a bit laid-back, almost somnolent. The third movement of the concerto absolutely rips things up in the Wild/Fielder version, and with the three-channel format Wild’s piano is realistically centered in the middle of the soundstage. Every note is delivered with gusto and clarity, unlike both the Camilo and Weiss versions. (On standard CD there is a gangbusters version of the Concerto on Arabesque by pianist David Golub, with Mitch Miller conducting the London Symphony.)
This Rolling Stones continue their 60+ year ascendancy with a worthwhile vinyl singles/e.p. collector’s set.