Thibaudet plays GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (orch. Grofe); “I Got Rhythm Variations”; Piano Concerto in F (orch. Grofe) – Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano/Steven Barta, clarinet/Andrew Balio, trumpet/Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop – Decca B0014091-02, 57:26 [Distr. by Universal] ****:
The urge to redefine Gershwin as a jazz and swing composer obviously has its rewards, so Jean-Yves Thibaudet (rec. 12, 13,15 November 2009) has resurrected the 1924 jazz band version of the Rhapsody in Blue–with its orchestrations by Ferde Grofe–and with Marin Alsop given it the Paul Whiteman treatment, replete with pregnant pauses and sudden rhythmic leaps, wails, whines, and wah-wah slides. Thibaudet himself openly admires the surviving Gershwin–as well Oscar Levant–documents for their improvisational jazz style. Not perhaps since the under-rated Byron Janis/Hugo Winterhalter rendition for RCA some fifty years have we had a modern reconstruction of the free-wheeling approach to this hybrid composition that releases its American sense of a new-born freedom within an almost ossified classical structure. [Michael Tilson-Thomas, Steven Richman and others have also performed the original Grofe versions on disc…Ed.] Marin Alsop contributes a blaring audacious orchestral patina to the moody working out of Gershwin’s various blues and stride motifs. The Roy Bargy/Paul Whiteman performance may come to mind, but it never benefited from the sonic panache of this document, produced by Dominic Fyfe.
In 1934 Gershwin write the “I Got Rhythm” Variations, and Thibaudet and Alsop adopt the manuscript version for their happy realization. Gershwin used to brag about not letting each hand know what the other was doing. A weepy waltz variation, an imitation of badly-tuned Chinese flutes (via Ravel), and syncopated chromatic chords in inversion are but a few of the means employed. The sonic mix from Tin Pan Alley and Carnegie Hall makes us wonder if Gershwin’s musical evolution might have embraced twelve-tone principles had he lived. [Perish the thought…Ed.]
Thibaudet relishes the 1927 Concerto in F with that same creamy self-indulgence we heard when Earl Wild championed the Concerto. Utilizing the 1928 Ferde Grofe orchestration adds many folksy touch to the timbre, another point for the jazz idiom’s infiltration into the sacred precincts occupied by Walter Damrosch. The Gershwin capacity for vocal instrumentalism–perhaps as refined as that of Chopin–shines through the ardent brilliance that Thibaudet imparts to the alternately natty and melancholy riffs. The first movement appears somewhat contrived compared to the Levant/Kostelanetz or Levant/Mitropoulos collaborations, but the spirit is willing and the color both grandiose and hard-edged. The bluesy trumpet and clarinet trio that opens the Andante con moto sets the tone for a spirited and eclectic blending of musical impulses, honky-tonk, Memphis, and New Orleans jazz styles. The Baltimore Symphony concertmaster makes his own points, a la Stephane Grappelli. The sweet melody maintains the same allure it always has for New Yorkers, whether they be Woody Allen or working stiffs. Thibaudet and the BSO battery make the ragtime sparks fly in the last colorful movement; and, although I won’t relinquish my Levant recordings, this collaboration makes a hearty and distinctive addition to the Gershwin legacy.