GERSHWIN: An American in Paris / Porgy and Bess (James Judd/ New Zealand Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559107)
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Unquestionably one of the greatest melodists of thetwentieth century, the American composer, pianistand conductor George Gershwin first made his nameas the most prodigiously talented of an exceptional generationof composers writing for Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s.
Though he would doubtless be remembered for hisincomparable songs alone, Gershwin went on to write anumber of concert works which have since becomeestablished in the repertory, including Rhapsody in Blue, AnAmerican in Paris and his most outstanding work, the operaPorgy and Bess. In the apt judgement of Merle Armstrongin his 1938 biography, Gershwin's music articulated 'theexcitement, the nervousness and the movement of America'.
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 26 thSeptember 1898, the second of four children born to Moishe(Morris) Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, both of whom hademigrated from Russia to the United States in the early1890s. In 1910 the Gershwins bought an upright piano,originally intended for their eldest child Ira, although it wasGeorge who quickly displayed an unusual aptitude for theinstrument. He studied with Charles Hambitzer, whointroduced him to the classical piano repertoire includingChopin, Liszt, Debussy and Ravel. Gershwin was later tostudy intermittently with a number of other teachers,including Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell and JosephSchillinger.
In 1914, aged fifteen, Gershwin dropped out of high schoolto become a demonstration pianist and song-plugger for themusic publishers Remick & Co. on Tin Pan Alley. Havinghad his first song published in 1916, he left Remick's inMarch 1917 and found work as a rehearsal pianist for Miss1917, a Broadway show by Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert.
At the same time he was brought to the attention of MaxDreyfus, the head of Harms publishing company, and wassubsequently engaged as a staff composer. In 1919 Gershwinwrote his first complete score for Broadway, La La Lucille,his first worldwide hit, Swanee, made famous by the singerAl Jolson who recorded it in 1920, and from 1920 to 1924contributed the music for five of George White's Scandals.
Over a fourteen-year period following La La LucilleGershwin musicals including Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh,Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930), Of TheeI Sing (1931) and Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933) would grace theNew York stage.
Gershwin's entry into the world of concert music came in1924 at the invitation of the bandleader and so-called 'Kingof Jazz', Paul Whiteman. Rhapsody in Blue for jazz bandand piano, orchestrated by Ferde Grofe and first performedin New York's Aeolian Hall on 12 th February 1924, wasfollowed by the Piano Concerto in F (1925), An Americanin Paris (1928), the Second Rhapsody (1931), the CubanOverture (1932) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1934-35).
Tragically, other projected works including a string quartet,a symphony, a ballet score, an additional opera, and songsfor a Kaufman-Hart musical never came to fruition. On 11 thJuly 1937 George Gershwin died at the age of 38 from abrain tumour.
The first work here included, the ten-minute orchestral suiteGershwin in Hollywood, is actually an arrangement by RobertRussell Bennett of some of Gershwin's most popular songsincluding 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', 'A FoggyDay', 'Love Walked In', 'Nice Work If You Can Get It' and'Love Is Here To Stay'.
Gershwin began work on An American in Paris in the springof 1928 and its premi?¿re by the New York PhilharmonicOrchestra under Walter Damrosch took place later that yearon 13 th December in Carnegie Hall (three years earlier in thesame venue Damrosch had conducted the first performanceof Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F). In this hugely popularone-movement symphonic poem, whose colourfulorchestration includes four saxophones and several taxi horns,the composer intended 'to portray the impressions of anAmerican visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listensto the various street noises and absorbs the Frenchatmosphere'. The melancholic blues theme announced bythe solo trumpet, suggesting a sudden bout of homesicknesson the part of the protagonist, is one of the finest Gershwinwrote.
Following the premi?¿re in Boston's Symphony Hall of hisSecond Rhapsody, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky on 29 thJanuary 1932, Gershwin and several friends took a two-weekholiday in Havana. The composer, fascinated by thesmall Cuban dance orchestras with their novel rhythms andunusual percussion instruments such as guiros, maracas,claves and bongos, was inspired to write the Cuban Overture.
He orchestrated the work between 1 st and 9 th August 1932,completing it just a week before the first All-GershwinConcert at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York, an open-airconcert attended by some 18,000 people which was,according to the composer, 'the most exciting night I haveever had'. Cast in Gershwin's characteristic fast-slow-fastform, he wrote that he had 'endeavoured to combine theCuban rhythms with my original thematic material. Theresult is a symphonic overture which embodies the essenceof Cuban dance'.
Gershwin's magnum opus, the three-act opera Porgy andBess, was written to a libretto by DuBose Heyward and IraGershwin. Based on Heyward's novel Porgy about life amongthe black inhabitants of Catfish Row in Charleston, SouthCarolina, the opera was started in late February 1934 andthe seven hundred page full score was completed inSeptember 1935. Heyward memorably described theidiosyncratic working methods of the Gershwin brothers,who 'would get at the piano, pound, wrangle, swear, burstinto weird snatches of song, and eventually emerge with apolished lyric'. It numbers amongst its classic songs'Summertime', 'I Loves You, Porgy' and 'It Ain't NecessarilySo'. The orchestral suite heard on this recording, theSymphonic Picture from Porgy and Bess arranged by RobertRussell Bennett, has become the standard version since itspremi?¿re in 1943, this despite the fact that Gershwin madehis own arrangement in 1936. Evidently long forgottenabout by the time Bennett made his arrangement, Gershwin'ssuite was retitled Catfish Row by Ira when it was rediscoveredin 1958. The opera, a commercial and critical failure at thetime, is now recognised as one of the greatest achievementsof twentieth-century American music.