Rhythm & Hues: Solo Piano Music of GERSHWIN & CHOPIN – Dr. Alicia Zizzo – 4TAY

by | Jul 17, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

Rhythm & Hues: Solo Piano Music of GERSHWIN & CHOPIN – Dr. Alicia Zizzo – 4TAY 4036, 72:45 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Alicia Zizzo has become a singular advocate for the solo piano music of George Gershwin, with her main goal to enhance the relatively small repertory Gershwin left for classical keyboard. Zizzo’s tour de force is her transcription of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm, a song whose (slow) genesis begins in 1928 and evolves into the fast-paced song of Girl Crazy (1930) and then, in 1933-1934, into a concert piece in four variations and finale for piano and orchestra. Gershwin’s “little theme on four notes” invokes shades of both Beethoven and Schumann; but Zizzo’s herculean task was to transfer the orchestral filigree into the magic mix of passing dissonances, string glissandos, waltz parodies, and jerky jazz agogics that permeate this peppery showpiece.

The remainder of the recital falls under the rubric Rubatos, Preludes and George Gershwin. Gershwin’s seven Preludes (1919-1926) owe their miniature integrity to Chopin, and Zizzo speculates as to whether Gershwin, like Chopin (and Bach) meant to compose for his collection The Melting Pot a prelude in all the keys of the chromatic scale. The piano technique of Hoctor’s Ballet (Shall We Dance) indicates the influence of Debussy and Offenbach, the serious and the parodic in music. Stride rhythms infiltrate the music, as in the “Promenade” from Shall We Dance. Zizzo juxtaposes those Chopin preludes she feels Gershwin directly sought to emulate or “stimulate” with his modern approach. Try “Hoctor’s Ballet” to taste Gershwin’s “wayward” chromatic line whose dissonances rival those in Antheil and Debussy’s own etudes. Besides, we have allusions to “No, no, you can’t take that away from me.” Gershwin’s capacity for cantilena and gorgeous melody erupts as disarmingly as his piquant rhythms, as in “Hi-Ho” from Shall We Dance. A piece like Novelette in Fourths – which might be construed as a rag or cakewalk, according to one’s lights –  beckons us to consider Scriabin and Chopin as inspirators, along with Schumann.  Like the “iconoclastic classic” Chopin, however, the rubato indication means for the interpreter to adhere to a strict pulse even while the upper line permits him or her the license to stretch the musical phraseology as desired.

When Zizzo performs Chopin proper – beginning with the sostenuto Nocturne in G Minor, Op. 37, No. 1 – she plays conscientiously, quite sensitive to that composer’s Romantic (steady) pulse and idiosyncratic (free) rhetoric.  Gershwin provides us a wonderful rag in his “Incidental Music” from the film Shall We Dance. Suddenly, Zizzo explores a more variegated tragic emotion in Chopin’s A Minor Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4.  One could argue its eerie bass chords adumbrate aspects of Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2. From cuts 12 – 24 we alternate emotional and rhythmic throes between Gershwin and Chopin, the Roaring Twenties by way of Romantic Agony. Chopin’s own predilection for the grotesque exerts itself in the A Minor Prelude, Op. 28, No. 2, whose asymmetries well define the Gershwin ethos. Did Schoenberg steal this piece?

The so-called “Blue Lullaby” Prelude No. 2 Zizzo performs with the same noble unsentimentality we know from the classic renditions by Oscar Levant and Morton Gould.  Chopin’s F-sharp Minor Prelude No. 8 hurtles by, somewhat marcato to my ears. This sets up Gershwin’s Prelude – Melody No. 17 (pub. 1995) which Kay Swift wished to have Ira Gershwin set to lyrics. The even pulsation of Chopin’s Prelude in G Major leads directly into Zizzo’s especial Rubato Prelude of Gershwin, also in G Major. The mysterious Chopin Prelude in B Minor (also called “Raindrop” by some annotators) finds its counterpoint in Gershwin’s Novelette in Fourths, whose Charleston rhythms lull us into thinking of “That’s My Baby.” Chopin’s E Minor Prelude – shades of Jack Nicholson – has its counterpart in Gershwin’s E-flat Minor Prelude No. 3, “Spanish.” The final diptych arrives, in Chopin’s totally symmetrical C Major Prelude and Gershwin’s Lullaby, the latter better known to us in its beguiling string quartet incarnation. 

If this album convinces us that two master song-writers have met and intertwined their kindred spirits, then I believe Dr. Zizzo has well accomplished her self-proclaimed mission.

—Gary Lemco