Gershwin: The First Recordings – Pristine Audio

by | Aug 24, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (acoustic and electric versions); Andante; 2 Alternate Versions of 1927; Gershwin-Dushkin: Short Story; Three Preludes; Piano Concerto in F; An American in Paris; Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra; Cuban Overture; Porgy and Bess: 8 selections; “I Got Rhythm” Variations – George Gershwin, piano and celesta/ Oscar Levant, piano/ Roy Bargy Piano (Concerto in F; Second Rhapsody)/ Rosa Linda, piano (Cuban Overture)/ Misha Spoliansky, piano/ Samuel Dushkin, violin/ Max Pirani, piano (Short Story)/ Helen Jepson, soprano/ Lawrence Tibbett, baritone/ conductors: Paul Whiteman/ Nathaniel Shilkret/ William Daly/ Alexander Smallens/ Morton Gould/ Frank Black/ Julian Fuhs – Pristine Audio PASC 637 (2 CDS: 2hrs 30:48) [] *****:

The note from Producer and Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn encapsulates the raison d’être for this historic set of George Gershwin from 78 rpms: 

This set brings together, for the first time in one place, all of the première recordings of George Gershwin’s works for the concert hall and opera house that were issued on 78 rpm discs, spanning a quarter of a century from the era of acoustic recording to the dawn of the LP. It features several items which have not been reissued previously on CD (some not even on LP), and concludes with an appendix of two early rival recordings of Rhapsody in Blue which are each significant in their own way.

Each of the five versions of Rhapsody in Blue (orch. Ferde Grofe), recorded 1924-1928, conveys, despite the various cuts and abridgements, is the sense of jazz improvisation, that the work has emerged anew so as to allow the principals to color the work in their own way. A slide, a glissando, a bassoon entry, the eloquent clarinet opening, and the personal rubatos applied contribute to a work that maintains its originality. In the case of the various Gershwin (personal) appearances, we have the RCA Victor (1924, 1927) testimonies to the “authenticity” movement. The Columbia (1927), Brunswick (1927), and Parlophone (1927) performances offer contemporary readings from Oscar Levant and Misha Spoliansky that initiate a Gershwin tradition in performance practice. Obert-Thorn points out that “King of Jazz” conductor Paul Whiteman (1890-1967), who liked to be identified with having established the Gershwin tradition, actually disagreed with the composer on tempos and phrasing, and Gershwin had to opt for Nathaniel Shilkret (1889-1982) to lead recorded performances. Shilket’s 4 February 1929 debut performance of An American in Paris with the RCA Victor Studio Orchestra has the original, Paris taxicab horns and George Gershwin busy at the celesta, given that the studio failed to hire a keyboard player. Unlike the Concerto’s last two movements, the Paris score remains intact and not cut to suit the strictures of the 78 rpm medium. Color touches, like the snare drum against the trumpet and orchestra strings, ensure an idiomatic and persuasive reading of which Woody Allen would likely approve. The 3 Preludes, happily, feature (8 June 1928) Gershwin at the keyboard in London, England, demonstrating his deft assimilation of blues, jazz, and stride elements. The Prelude in B-flat rocks in syncopations and rhythmic shifts akin to Brazilian folk impulses. The C-harp Minor Prelude exudes Southern blues, built on thirds and projecting what he called a “lullaby” effect. The wild ride of the E-flat Minor Prelude might be Spanish in affect, but its colloquy of question and answer sweeps forward in convulsive, jazzy riffs and ringing chords, major versus minor.

Whiteman had similar difficulty with the recorded premiere of the Concerto in F, featuring composer-pianist Roy Bargy (1894-1974); and the performance, made between September and October 1928, has another conductor from the NBC Broadcasting Company, William Daly (1887-1936), to lead Ferde Grofe’s jazz band version of the score. The saxophone work alone distinguishes the sound of passing dissonances in the opening Allegro, which align the piece with the often spare, “French” sound typical of Stravinsky in this period. In this regard, the recording of violinist Samuel Dushkin (1891-1976) in 1928 with Max Pirani in Short Story cements the Stravinsky link, given Dushkin’s association with Stravinsky’s Duo Concertante and Violin Concerto. Rather drastic cuts plague the 23 October 1938 recording of the 1931 Second Rhapsody, with Roy Bargy and Paul Whiteman, leaving out a third of the score – based on Gershwin’s first movie music, Delicious, from 1930 – Gershwin and Serge Koussevitzky had premiered in Boston 29 January 1932. 

Paul Whiteman resurrected the 1932 Cuban Overture of Gershwin, asking composer Allan Small to arrange the piece as a piano-concertante for the recording (21 October 1938) with Rosa Linda at the piano. Gershwin loved the rhumba elements in Havana’s musical life, but no less the percussion instruments that add decisive color to the pageant. Pianist Linda and conductor Whiteman do impart a colossal, singing vigor to their treatment, “freely based on themes” from the original score. Linda even adds a few recognizable chords from Rhapsody in Blue in her cadenza. This arrangement would have been a natural vehicle for Jose Iturbi. 

Gershwin supervised the two-week recording sessions of Porgy and Bess excerpts from mid-to-late October 1935, a mere four days after the Broadway opening of this folk-opera. MET stars Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) and Helen Jepson (1904-1997) replaced the Black cast members for this version led by Smallens and Shilkret; but despite soprano Jepson’s good clarity of articulation and high tessitura, her stilted diction seems mannered and misplaced, so “Summertime” and “My man’s gone now” ring overly stylized. In duet with the “Crap Game,” the synchronized singing favors Tibbett’s characterized study, whose resonant voice and clear diction this reviewer owned on the original 78’s of “I’ve got plenty of nuttin’.” Tibbett’s “The Buzzard Song” and the scat-styled “It ain’t necessarily so,” capture, in contrary emotional tones, shadow and light in the human soul. The deep sincerity and tragic awareness of mortality and longing permeate the duet, “Bess, you is my woman now,” and even Jepson’s “British,” staid affect melts in response. The final aria, “Oh, Bess, oh where’s my Bess?” touches us with Tibbett’s energetic plea of devotion and forgiveness. 

With the 6 July 1949 performance by Oscar Levant and Morton Gould of the 1934 “I Got Rhythm” Variations, Obert-Thorn has taken us through the course of recording technology from the acoustic 78 to the expanded electrical process of the Lp era initiated by Columbia Records. The four-note motif that sets the course of this wickedly clever piece seems a variant on Beethoven’s “fate” motif, here gone over “to the other side.” When the treble and bass invert, it seems Gershwin has taken some lessons from the master of variation technique, Beethoven, himself. The use of atonal and pentatonic scales adds to the exotic luster of a breezy rendition that will not quit.

–Gary Lemco

Gershwin, The First Recordings, Album Cover

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