GERSHWIN, George: Gershwin and Friends

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‘Gershwin & Friends’ Original Recordings 1927-1951

A talent as great as George Gershwin’s was bound to be a magnet. It is not surprising that, as the years rolled on after his too-early death in 1937, virtually everyone who ever met him claimed to be "a friend". Yet, he did have close friendships with many of those other talents who were drawn into his orbit. Part of that vast galaxy is represented by this CD.

One of the early proponents of Gershwin was conductor Nathaniel Shilkret. His credits include songwriting ("Jeanine, I Dream of Lilac Time" and "Lonesome Road"), clarinetist in brass bands and symphonic orchestras, prodigious arranger and mainstay conductor for the corporately intertwined National Broadcasting Company and Victor Records. Their friendship began in childhood days and lasted through Gershwin’s final days in Hollywood, when Shilkret served as musical director at RKO-Radio Pictures on George and Ira’s score for Shall We Dance.

Without doubt the best known of the Shilkret—Gershwin collaborations was the première recording of Gershwin’s tone poem, An American in Paris, which opens this Naxos disc. Although it has been recorded hundreds of times with many of the world’s greatest symphonic orchestras since its first performance on 13 December 1928, Shilkret’s Victor recording remains one of the best. Although the orchestra is less than fully symphonic in size, it was just right, capturing the work’s muscular qualities when needed, but also its delicateness. Shilkret never overpowers the piece. The legendary story is told of George — as was his wont — getting in Shilkret’s way as they prepared to record. To keep him occupied and out of his hair, he asked George to play the celeste part, saying he "hadn’t remembered" to hire a player. Listen for George missing his cue on the first celeste entrance.

No story or musical compilation on Gershwin and friends would be complete without Oscar Levant. He first saw Gershwin when he was twelve and living in Pittsburgh. Gershwin was then accompanist for singer Nora Bayes. Levant later wrote, "I had never heard such fresh, brisk, unstudied, completely free and inventive playing." A deep friendship began a few years later and they often hurled revealing barbs at each other. Levant recalled sharing a bedroom on an overnight train with Gershwin, who commented, "Upper berth, lower berth. That’s the difference between talent and genius." A later Levant quip was, "George, if you had it to do all over again, would you fall in love with yourself?" Despite the verbal jousting, Levant was a truly committed proponent of his friend’s work, both during Gershwin’s life and after. And Gershwin did much to help Levant’s career.

In his entertaining autobiography, Memoirs of an Amnesiac, Levant recalls getting an early morning call to rush to the Brunswick New York studios to replace a pianist who had not show up for conductor Frank Black’s recording of Rhapsody In Blue. Despite the fact that half the orchestra appears to be off mike, the recording is remarkably good. Levant gives a performance that is typical Levant: exciting. Harry Reser, founder of the legendary Clicquot Club Eskimos of the 1920s, is also in there playing banjo.

Levant is also heard in two recordings made for the strange but enjoyable Warner Bros. film biography, Rhapsody In Blue. The film was a badly reworked version of half of a script by playwright Clifford Odets (the discarded portion became the John Garfield—Joan Crawford blockbuster, Humoresque). But what it lacked in believability was more than compensated for in its soundtrack; a Gershwin film concert is how it is often described by Gershwin fans. Levant appears in the film as himself and also provides many of the piano recordings that were "synched" by actor Robert Alda. These did much to give the film a sound of authenticity that it lacked in its script.

Included here are the condensed Concerto In F and the complete Rhapsody In Blue. Both were issued to U.S. servicemen on V-Discs in advance of the film’s delayed 1946 release. Without seeing the film, those soldiers may have been puzzled by the "memory lapse" in the first movement of the Concerto, which was used dramatically to indicate the first signs of the brain tumour that eventually killed Gershwin at age 38.

The recording of the Rhapsody is used in the sequence depicting its première performance at Aeolian Hall under the baton of Paul Whiteman, who played a pivotal role in Gershwin’s rise to fame. But the recording has the unmistakable Warner Bros. Music Department sound and bears the imprint of musical director Ray Heindorf. Wielding the baton on the recording stage and acting as musical alter ego, Heindorf even managed to capture Whiteman’s tendency in later years to play with the Rhapsody’s tempo. It is still a thrilling performance, thanks largely to Levant. Also heard are banjo player Mike Pingitore, who played at the première performance as a member of Whiteman’s orchestra, and clarinetist Al Galladoro, who supplies the spine tingling glissando that opens the recording.

Samuel Dushkin’s Short Story is an interesting and often forgotten work. Dushkin was one of many violinists who befriended and admired Gershwin early in his career. This work is an adaptation of two Novelettes that Dushkin noticed while visiting Gershwin’s 110th Street apartment in late 1924. Gershwin agreed to Dushkin’s suggestion that they should rework them into what became Short Story. Although charming, the work has not been extensively performed. This is a scarce recording made in London for HMV, but only issued in France, Austria and Italy.

The other violinist who did much to promote Gershwin was Jascha Heifetz, who first met and sang Gershwin’s praises in the 1920s. His recording of the Preludes, accompanied by pianist Emanuel Bay, was made for Decca and was part of an album that included his transcriptions of several songs from Porgy And Bess; those tracks are included in Naxos’ two-disc Porgy And Bess set (Naxos Historical 8.110219-20).

Following Gershwin’s death, all the major labels rushed out tribute recordings and compilations of previously waxed material. The first tribute disc to be recorded is the English Columbia disc included here. In those low-tech days, it must have been quite a technical miracle. It weaves new sections by orchestra leader Carroll Gibbons, mouth organ virtuoso Larry Adler (a close Gershwin friend) and vocalist Hildegarde with snippets of the 1926 Gershwin—Fred Astaire Half Of It Dearie Blues and Gershwin’s solo disc of Sweet And Low Down, all wrapped up with narration by BBC announcer and programme presenter Christopher Stone.

Rounding out this collection is a rare broadcast recording from Hollywood Bowl’s 1951 all-Gershwin concert, featuring M-G-M musical director Johnny Green. Green grew up in a wealthy New York family and was privileged to first meet Gershwin — along with Gertrude Lawrence, Jack Buchanan and Bea Lillie — when he accompanied his parents to a backers’ party for the Broadway import of the London stage musical, Charlot’s Revue. Green was fifteen and, in his own words, "was planet number one orbiting around George from that moment on."

Gershwin was amused by young Green’s gushing admiration and even more impressed with his piano and arranging talents, which he encouraged. When George and Ira’s
Disc: 1
Porgy And Bess: A Symphonic Picture
1 An American In Paris
2 Rhapsody In Blue
3 Short Story
4 The Man I Love-Do Do Do-My One And Only-'S Wonderf
5 1st movement
6 3rd movement
7 #1 (Allegro ben ritmato e deciso)
8 #2 (Andante con moto e poco rubato)
9 #3 (Allegro ben ritmato e deciso)
10 Rhapsody In Blue
11 Porgy And Bess: A Symphonic Picture
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