Classical Notes

George Gershwin and the Rhapsody in Blue

It is amazing but true that every 30 years a new technology has revolutionized the process of recording music. In the mid-1890s Emil Berliner's flat disc became the medium of choice over the cylinder, in the mid-1920s electrical recordings treble clef graphic swept aside the acoustic process, in the mid-50's stereo overrode mono, and in the mid'80s the CD pushed aside vinyl.

It is no less amazing that all but one of these transitions was a smooth and gradual process, in which the predecessors coexisted with the improved newcomer for years, if not decades. Thus, cylinders persisted through World War I, mono discs sold quite well throughout the 'sixties and, notwithstanding the industry's efforts to kill vinyl outright, the fact remains that until quite recently CDs penetrated only a small fraction of the homes with turntables.

The only exception was the replacement of the acoustic process with the electrical system. Perhaps the reason was the extreme difference in their quality. Early discs really sounded no different from cylinders (if anything, they sounded worse, as their inner grooves had lower fidelity and higher distortion) and there is little aesthetic difference between stereo and a good mono recording or between a CD and a well-preserved LP. But the difference between acoustic and electrical recordings is unmistakable.

The acoustic process, it should be remembered, approached sound much like the human ear. A horn gathered the sound and concentrated it on a diaphragm, whose vibrations were transferred to a stylus, which made a corresponding engraving on a wax cylinder or disc. The process was purely mechanical; the original acoustic energy was transferred directly to the record.

The system was disarmingly simple, but the problems it engendered were enormous:

-- The performers had to crowd into as small and airtight a room as possible, as a larger or vented one would only dispel the sound and lower the volume. Thus an immediate compromise was a complete loss of concert-hall realism, as the small recording rooms allowed no reverberation or a sense of atmosphere or space.

-- The sound was further compromised by the need for vastly reduced orchestral forces. The use of a few violins in place of the normal complement of dozens knocked the lush orchestral blend down to chamber-music sonorities.

-- The aim was to generate uniform amounts of consistent volume, as softer passages sank into the considerable surface noise, while loud blasts caused severe distortion. Thus musicians who had worked a lifetime perfecting their subtlety of expression had to ignore their training and instincts.

-- The performers were placed in bizarre arrangements so as to project properly into the horn, thus precluding the normal interactions to which they were accustomed.

-- The frequencies to which the mechanism would respond were limited to what we now call the midrange. The records lacked any real bass and without the necessary harmonics the higher instruments sounded confusingly alike. (The latter effect can be approximated by imposing a steep 3 or 4 kHz cut with an equalizer on any well-recorded music.) In fact, some instruments, like double basses, weren't used at all, as their fundamentals wouldn't register and would have caused massive distortion. Others were altered, the worst contraptions known as Stroh violins, which were fitted with little horns on their bridges to focus and aim the sound toward the recording horn; imagine the distraction of playing with one of those things constantly under your nose.

-- And perhaps worst of all, after applying their considerable skill to estimating the balance, the recording engineers became helpless bystanders, unable to monitor the recording in progress or to make any volume or tonal adjustments.

Given these severe limitations, it is incredible how good some acoustic recordings sound. While smaller ensembles were harmed the least by the compromises of the acoustic process, many operas and other major works were attempted, the most ambitious of which was Mahler's Second Symphony, recorded in 1923 with a rather anemic Berlin State Opera Orchestra, chorus and soloists under Oscar Fried, issued by German Polydor on 22 sides (on Pearl 9929, 2 CDs).

With the advent of electrical recordings, all these clouds were lifted. Suddenly, standard orchestras with their full complement of instruments could be recorded in reverberant concert halls. The resulting records yielded solid bass and most overtones, and a much wider range of expression. Engineers could give the performers relatively free rein, effecting adjustments unobtrusively as necessary. The difference between the old acoustic and electric recordings was tangible and dramatic; no listener could possibly mistake one for the other.

While the technological advance of the shift to the electrical process was wholly positive, the artistic cost was, in many cases, severe. Several years' worth of acoustically recorded performances suddenly became obsolete and worthless. Some stellar artists like pianist Ignaz Friedman and conductor Leopold Stokowski were rushed back into the studio to rerecord more vividly their recent but now unreleasable acoustic performances. But with many others the producers were not so lavish, and marketing efforts were simply abandoned.

Among the greatest of the late acoustic recordings is George Gershwin's own stunning performance of his Rhapsody in Blue. Quality aside, the recording is crucial, as it preserves the world premiere of one of the most popular works in the entire repertoire, and in a performance strikingly different from the interpretations to which we have become accustomed. Here is Gershwin himself playing the piano solo, accompanied by the orchestra for which the work was custom-tailored. What would we give to hear how Beethoven played his own piano sonatas or how Wagner conducted his own tradition-shattering operas? And yet, despite its importance, the Gershwin record was only briefly distributed before falling victim to the electrical revolution.

The unique importance of this recording emerges from its genesis. We have many "creator's" records of modern music, but none as significant as this. For while it is always interesting to hear a first performance, and to cherish it as a guideline for later interpretations, never in our time has there been so important a work whose very creation was an integral part of the circumstances and forces leading to its premiere.

The details of Gershwin's life are well conveyed in Edward Jablonski's Gershwin (Doubleday, 1987). He was born Jacob Gershvitz to Russian immigrant parents in 1898 in Brooklyn, where he was immersed in a variety of musics. After becoming enthralled with music, he left high school for Tin Pan Alley and worked 3 years as a pianist demonstrating sheet music for Remick's music publishers, quickly absorbing both the songwriting and performance styles of the time. Gershwin began to dabble in composition and moonlighted as a vocal accompanist. He skyrocketed to success as the 20-year old composer of "Swanee," a mega-hit for Al Jolson, Within the next few years the flow of songs continued and he wrote several Broadway musicals. Among his many professional contacts was Paul Whiteman, whose dance band was among the most popular in America.

Apparently, at one point, Gershwin had mentioned to Whiteman his desire to write a serious piece which incorporated jazz and pop elements. Nothing more came of this until January 3, 1924, when Whiteman announced an eclectic concert to take place at Aeolian Hall, New York City, with the heady purpose of displaying modern American music in all its varieties. Whiteman went on to proclaim that Gershwin was at work on a jazz concerto which would receive its premiere at his forthcoming concert. This was news to Gershwin, who read about it in the next day's newspaper along with the rest of the music world. Indeed, Gershwin protested that he had nothing in progress except a new show and was headed to Boston for a tryout. Worse yet, the Whiteman show was slated for February 24!

Despite the confusion, Whiteman evidently was able to persuade Gershwin to accept his commission and to proceed. Gershwin later recalled that he formed the concept of the piece on the way to Boston, inspired in part by the rhythmic noises of the train ride. Upon returning to his New York apartment, he generated a 2-piano score. Orchestration was assigned to Whiteman's top arranger, Ferde Grofe, best remembered for his glitzy but trifling Grand Canyon Suite.

This delegation of responsibilities was ideal. Grofe was uniquely qualified to customize the orchestration so as to take advantage of the special talents of the various Whiteman musicians, many of whom were distinguished jazz soloists. For example, the famous opening glissando was custom-tailored for Russ Gorman, the first-chair clarinetist.

The orchestration was completed by February 4, barely a week before the scheduled premiere. Due to the rushed circumstances and his other commitments, Gershwin reportedly had no time to write out the solo passages, which he played from memory (and, great improviser that he was, probably embellished considerably right on the spot). Gershwin's understanding with Whiteman was that he would nod to him when his solos were over and the next orchestral portion was to begin.

The concert itself apparently was quite long and the music reportedly was of variable quality and interest, with Gershwin's piece coming at the very end. Critical reaction was mixed but one thing was clear: the work was recognized immediately as something new and excitingly different. Even now, with the comfort of retrospect, the Rhapsody eludes convenient classification. Is it classical music with pop elements, or jazz with serious pretensions? Perhaps the best that can be said is that it is undisputedly American, a true melting pot of musics, with sources and idioms as diverse as America itself.

Perhaps one of the most reliable measures of its originality is that the Rhapsody had no direct descendants, although it paved the way for Gershwin to produce such other "crossover" works as An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, and, ultimately, the opera Porgy and Bess. Its fame and impact also inspired many other serious composers (including Stravinsky and Milhaud) to explore jazz and as many pop composers to dabble in classical forms. Perhaps its strongest, although indirect, influence was on Leonard Bernstein, who achieved great success in both musical worlds, and whose compositions in each one are strongly tinged with the other. Bernstein's On the Waterfront score, the ballet sequence in his West Side Story and the entirety of his sprawling Mass are at once symphonic and jazz.

But all of this lay well in the future, a future which Gershwin, who died at age 38 of a brain tumor, would not live to see. In the meantime, the months following the Whiteman premiere saw several more performances, including two at Carnegie Hall. And then for the young and daring composer an unusual opportunity arose -- the opportunity to record his sensation for Victor, or at least as much of it as could fit onto a 2-sided 12-inch record.

The session took place on June 10 and featured the same Whiteman players who were at Aeolian Hall, including Gershwin himself at the piano. The performance captured that day is a tour de force, fully regenerating the excitement that thrilled audiences at the time. The pacing is brisk and at times even frantic, the dynamics extreme, and the playing biting, tense and driven. There is not a bit of the gushy romanticism heard on so many bloated modern interpretations of the piece. Even the shrill, brassy, lean orchestration seems an ideal match for the limitations of the acoustic process.

In a word, this is a perfect realization of the work, brash and egotistical -- just the impression we would expect of the young composer who had turned the world on its head by daring to synthesize jazz and the classics. The opening glissando is rather lumpy, but effectively sets the aural stage for the spontaneity to come. Gershwin's solos are so free-flowing as to sound as if they arose on the spot. The band responds with a biting sarcasm, blowing its extended notes with raspberries, as if to mock the pretension of a formal concert setting. The entire performance has a palpably exciting improvised sound to it, as if to proclaim the passionate commitment of the original ensemble, infusing the score with the breath of creation. The sincerity of the record is simply overwhelming.

That said, I wish I could conclude by urging you to rush out and buy a copy, but I'm afraid you missed your best opportunity in 1924: the original is now awfully scarce and the demise of vinyl has robbed us of the best subsequent issue. The finest incarnation of the performance was on RCA Victrola AVM1-1740, one of a series of budget-priced bicentennial reissues in 1976. The sound is fine, having been refurbished with computers, and the disc also includes an entire side of superb Gershwin piano solos as well as the first (1929) and excellent performance of An American in Paris. If you ever come across this release, grab it! Otherwise, Pearl has issued a 2-CD set of Gershwin performances of his own works, but the sound is variable and in addition to the cream of his work on the RCA record, you will pay for a lot of stuff that only fanatics will covet. But even that is better than nothing, which right now is the only alternative.

Somehow, other performances tend to sound flabby and dull compared to Gershwin's own (in part because they use Grofe's later full orchestration), but this is a work which is so melodious and rhythmic as to be hard to ruin entirely. Gershwin himself left us two other performances. One is a 1925 piano roll, which sounds rather naked by itself in a realization on Nonesuch 79287 but has also been grafted onto a new band performance led by Michael Tilson Thomas on Columbia CD MK 42240. The other is a 1927 electrical remake with Whiteman on Victor 35822, but while it comes pretty close, it doesn’t quite capture the fresh authority of the original.

Another highly worthwhile historical recording stems from the mid-1940s by Oscar Levant with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. You may remember Levant primarily as an insufferable character in the MGM musicals The Band Wagon and An American in Paris; the latter highlighted Gershwin's music and contained a long dream sequence in which Levant plays portions of Gershwin's Concerto in F. More significant than his acting, though, was his dedicated service as a Gershwin aide and accompanist. Levant's highly personal reading works quite well and is second only to Gershwin's own in authenticity. The performance was on Columbia LP CL-700. (Note that the album bore the "CL" prefix used for pop albums, rather than the "ML" classical prefix!) More recently it was given the curious honor of being the first mono material reissued on CD by Columbia (MK 42514); sadly, that was in 1987, and it still remains one of the very few mono CDs issued by that lazy company (and its parent) from its vast trove of dormant historical treasures.

The other fine old performance comes from a most unlikely source: that straight-laced classicist, Arturo Toscanini. During World War II, Toscanini viewed the performance of American compositions as a patriotic gesture. Unfortunately, though, he simply had no feeling for the pop and jazz language that forms a crucial part of Gershwin's music. To his credit, though, Toscanini made no attempt to mimic an alien performing style. Rather, he approached Gershwin with the same fierce severity as any other classical piece. The result (on Hunt CD 534) actually works rather well on its own dour terms. The reading is vivid and committed, though, and provides a fascinating if perverse contrast to the usual ones. If nothing else, the elements missing from Toscanini's interpretation demonstrate that the essence of Gershwin lay well beyond the limits of serious music alone.

Of the many modern versions available, the early stereo performance by Leonard Bernstein, conducting from the keyboard, manages to capture much of the youthful vigor and excitement of Gershwin's original; it has been around in various incarnations since its release in 1959 on Columbia LP MS-6091, most recently as part of the Bernstein "Royal Edition" on mid-priced CD MK 47529 (or paired appropriately with Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite on MK 42264). A similarly vigorous approach is taken by Earl Wild and the vastly underrated Arthur Fiedler, conducting the Boston Pops on RCA LSC-2367, reissued on RCA/BMG mid-priced CD 6519 2-RG. A far different approach is taken by Jeffrey Siegel, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, whose wry, laidback and well-balanced account permits the work's humor and playfulness to emerge gently; it was available in Vox Box SVBX-5132 (in quad!) and now on super-budget CD set Vox CDX-5007; either format is a superb bargain.

Encouraged by the success of the Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin produced an even more ambitious crossover work the next year. His Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, a full-blown 3 movement concerto, was traditional in title and form, but jazzy in all its details. Its melodies were bluesy, its harmonies extended, its rhythms sharp, and its orchestration (by Gershwin himself this time) blazing. The opening phrase alone is a knockout, boldly proclaiming what lies ahead: 4 tympany strokes, a cymbal clash, a bass drum thud, and snare drum roll, all repeated, which leads directly into a Charleston motif! This is truly a concerto for people who hate concertos.

The finest realization of the Concerto in F is the highly extroverted account with Earl Wild at the keyboard and Arthur Fiedler conducting. Levant's performance has fine, characterful solo work, but the accompaniment by Andre Kostelanetz is pretty colorless. The Siegal/Slatkin reading is dry, witty and subtle, but quite convincing. Each is packaged with the Rhapsody in Blue performances already noted.

Next from the "serious" Gershwin came An American in Paris (1928), a delightful musical souvenir of a European trip. Early in the days of the LP, its breezy tone and length marked it as a natural flip-side companion to the Rhapsody in Blue, and it has been so coupled ever since. Each of the above recommendations for the Bernstein, Fiedler and Slatkin readings of the Rhapsody apply as well to their associated performances of An American in Paris.

But there is one standout reading that preceded LPs, played in February, 1929 by the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra led by Nathaniel Shilkret. This was the first recording of a complete Gershwin work (both the acoustic and electric versions of Whiteman's Rhapsody having been abridged) and features Gershwin playing the brief celesta passage near the middle. (Apparently, this touch of authenticity was unplanned, and was necessitated when it was realized, too late, that the producer had forgotten to hire a celesta player for the session.) The authenticity of this performance is assured, though, not only from Gershwin's unexpected presence, but by Shilkret's use of the actual taxi horns that Gershwin brought back with him from Paris and which inspired the introductory "walking" section. The reading is wonderful and still sounds great on RCA LP AVM1-1740.

Over the next few years, Gershwin produced some lesser pieces, including a Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, a rhumba-flavored Cuban Overture and the self-descriptive 'I Got Rhythm' Variations for Piano and Orchestra. And then came the last and most ambitious of Gershwin's classical works -- Porgy and Bess, a collaboration with his lyricist brother Ira and playwright Du Bose Heyward. Launched in 1935 as grand opera, its story of poverty, drugs and racism were hardly the stuff of operatic tradition, and its main characters of a crippled black beggar, a drug pusher and a fugitive woman were unlikely to gain the identification of typical opera audiences. The reception of this realistic brew was mixed, and its success came eventually only in subsequent revivals which Gershwin did not live to enjoy.

All of the available complete recordings are good, including those by the Houston Grand Opera on RCA RCD3-2109 (3 CDs) and the Cleveland forces on London 414 539-2 (3 CDs) and the pioneering set produced by Goddard Lieberson for Columbia in 1953 (OSL-162, 3 LPs). There is a wide choice among excerpts, as well as Catfish Row, Gershwin's own orchestral suite (included in the Vox sets), which would be Gershwin's last serious work. But Porgy and Bess has been enjoyed more for its parts than as a whole. Many of its arias and set pieces have taken flight as popular songs, and one in particular, the stunningly beautiful first act curtain-raiser, "Summertime," has been interpreted by artists as diverse as Miles Davis and Janis Joplin.

This was the serious side of Gershwin. His other, popular, side has been popular indeed, perpetuated by the intense interest which jazz musicians have taken in his daring harmonic structures and exquisitely-wrought melodies, which have provided a wealth of material for their extraordinary improvisations. For straight renditions, Gershwin himself can be heard in splendid if confined fox-trot versions of 8 show tunes, together with his Three Preludes on RCA AVM1-1740. Another marvelous collection of lighter pieces is played authoritatively by pianist William Bolcom on Nonesuch LP H-71284. A companion record of songs by Bolcom and Joan Morris is on Nonesuch LP H-71358. Both albums are combined on Nonesuch CD 9 79151-2. More unusual arrangements range from Jascha Heifetz to the Canadian Brass.

But no matter how much Gershwin you hear in other hands and in more recent times, the most startling performance of them all remains that first crack at the Rhapsody in Blue. Never again would coalesce the unique intensity of headstrong success, the first marvel of acceptance by the world of serious music that the kid from Brooklyn had envied and finally joined on his own terms, the heady thrill of creating something new and wonderful, and the awesome challenge that the most distant artistic horizons were now his to conquer.


 Copyright 1991 by Peter Gutmann

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