ON THE RECORD: Revisiting a "Rhapsody" with Gershwin and Copeland's "Rodeo"

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01 Sep 2013

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This week's column examines new recordings from Naxos of concert works by George Gershwin (including "Rhapsody in Blue," "Concerto in F" and the "Second Rhapsody") and Aaron Copland (including Rodeo).

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue [Naxos]
Gershwin: Concerto in F [Naxos]
Gershwin has been on our minds, of late; George turns 115 next month, by the calendar anyway. Naxos, the impressively far-reaching classical label with what they term "consumer-friendly prices," has taken the occasion to give us two new CDs which, combined, offer most of Gershwin's symphonic work.

I don't know about you, but I've been listening to numerous performances of the Rhapsodies, the Concerto, and the others for years; some on LP, most on CD. From time to time I've been on overload, although for the last year or so I've been back in a Gershwin mood. New recordings of new performances have both disadvantages and advantages. The Naxos CDs start off with a distinct advantage: they are modern-day recordings, with the instruments clear and audible in a way that some of the earlier performances are (understandably) not. If the playing isn't good, this is not necessarily an advantage. But the present musicians, soloists and conductor do a fine job, leaving me quite happy.

The recordings in question come from conductor Jo Ann Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The more recent of the two features is "Rhapsody in Blue," which Gershwin wrote in 1924. At the time, he was just another Kern follower, not far removed from his days as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger. He already had one hit to his credit, the 1919 "Swanee," plus a moderate success in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise." But Gershwin was not the Gershwin of legend until Feb. 12, 1924, when modern American music was distinctly shaken up by the Rhapsody and Gershwin became an instant celebrity. In June of that year he wrote his next durable song, "Somebody Loves Me," and Lady Be Good — the first hit Gershwin musical, starring Adele and Fred Astaire — opened in December (bringing along "Fascinating Rhythm," "Oh, Lady Be Good" and "The Man I Love"). At the start of 1924, George was just another promising composer. By New Year's Eve, he was top-of-the-heap.

Gershwin was not prepared for, nor looking for, a symphonic career. With "Rhapsody" as entry, though, opportunities arose — and he was always one to rise to a challenge. His other major concert works were "Concerto in F" (1925) and "An American in Paris" (1928), which is not included on the two Naxos CDs. The composer's fame made him a popular attraction as a concert soloist, so he put together a few additional items suitable for personal appearances.



In 1930, Gershwin wrote an extended piece of incidental music for the Hollywood film "Delicious." The material, which represented a noisy Manhattan street scene, was mostly cut. Rather than leaving it in scraps, the composer decided to turn it into a symphonic piece, originally called "Rhapsody in Rivets." (The rhythmic sounds of drilling and construction are prominent.) Gershwin called the finished version the "Second Rhapsody," in a bid to tie it in with his first "Rhapsody." This didn't work, and the piece, which was introduced at Symphony Hall in Boston in 1932, with George at the piano, was more or less overlooked for decades. I myself like it enormously.

Continued...

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