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George Gershwin : Orchestral Works


Historic recordings made between 1924-1938, featuring the great man himself on piano. Includes the first recording of 'Rhapsody in Blue'

Cuban Overture: Rosa Linda, piano, with Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra
An American In Paris: George Gershwin with Nathaniel Shilkret & The Victor Symphony Orchestra << sound clip
Rhapsody In Blue: George Gershwin with Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra
Second Rhapsody: Roy Bargy, piano, with Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra
Piano Concerto in F: Roy Bargy, piano, with Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra

Very few composers have achieved instant celebrity to anything like the degree that George Gershwin enjoyed following the overnight success of the first performance of his Rhapsody in Blue on 12 February 1924. But then the concert to which it provided the grand finale was an event in itself. Paul Whiteman, one of New York's foremost bandleaders had hired the Aeolian Hall for what was billed as 'An Experiment in Modern Music'. The 'experiment' was to see whether it was possible for American composers to achieve a synthesis between classical and popular idioms and forms; and the jury which would decide the matter was to include such luminaries as Jascha Heifetz and Serge Rachmaninov. In fact the piece which set the musical world talking was composed in great haste. Whiteman had mentioned to Gershwin in 1923 that he would like the young composer to write something for his band, but there had been no further discussions when Gershwin read in the 4 January edition of the New York Tribune that he was hard at work on a new 'jazz concerto'. Panicked into action, he began work on the Rhapsody on 7 January and completed a two-piano version within three weeks; the orchestration was sensibly left to Ferde Grofe, who was more familiar with the unorthodox requirements of Whiteman's band. Though the Rhapsody made quite a splash, not all the critical reaction was kind. The New York Tribune's review was typical of many: '...Recall the most ambitious piece, the Rhapsody, and weep over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive. And then recall for contrast, the rich inventiveness of the rhythms, the saliency and vividness of the orchestral color'. What everyone realised was that Whiteman had kept the most interesting and original item until last: history has been less kind to the likes of Nick La Rocca, Zez Confrey and Rudolf Friml, while the musical public is not generally reckoned to be crying out for jazz-band arrangements of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches.

The Victor Talking Machine Company was not slow off the mark in recognizing the audience appeal of this new 'Symphonic Jazz'. It brought the original performers into its studios just four months later, and it is this first recording of the Rhapsody, made on 10 June 1924, which is included here (it includes several cuts which have been adopted by many other interpreters). The conductor of the New York Symphony Society, Walter Damrosch, was also quick to recognize Gershwin's potential as a composer of concert music. In the spring of 1925 Gershwin received a commission from the Society for a new Piano Concerto, to be premiered later that year. Because of continuing commitments on Broadway, he did not begin writing the work until mid-July (a few days after his appearance on the cover of Time magazine, a sure sign of his ever-growing fame). As with the Rhapsody, Gershwin worked quickly when deadlines loomed: by 10 November he had completed a substantial three-movement Concerto, and this time he claimed the orchestration as all his own work (though some of his contemporaries were sceptical of this). In writing for a traditional symphony orchestra, Gershwin's references to jazz are less overt than in Rhapsody in Blue. His conception of form is arguably still underdeveloped, though the re-use in the finale of material from the other movements is clearly a nod in the direction of how large-scale structures are supposed to be built. But of all Gershwin's concert works, it is the Concerto which has received the most praise from the classical world: as Hans Keller wrote, '...who cares about weak spots when there is greatness? There are quite enough weak spots without greatness in this world to satisfy the most compulsive critic.'

Though Gershwin played the Concerto in public often, he never recorded it. Whiteman's version (with an altered orchestration and substantial cuts in the finale) makes use of one of his regular pianist/arrangers, Roy Bargy. This performance dates from the autumn of 1928, when Gershwin was working on the orchestration of An American in Paris (another Damrosch commission). He had spent several weeks in Paris during the spring of 1928, and been introduced to Diaghilev, Prokofiev and Nadia Boulanger among others. But despite the seriousness with which European musicians treated him (he also met Weill and Lehar in Berlin, and Alban Berg in Vienna) and the interest he showed in the new music scene there, he clearly felt his American identity as strongly as ever. The trumpet blues at the heart of An American in Paris sound more than a little like homesickness in the context of the bustling activity of the rest of the work, and the four car-horns heard at the start are vivid warnings to a stranger. But Gershwin refused to assign any specific programme to the work; instead 'the individual listener can read into the music such episodes as his imagination pictures for him'. The Victor recording, made just a few weeks after the December 1928 premiere, was conducted by Gershwin's friend Nathaniel Shilkret. It seems he got so fed up with the composer's interference in rehearsals that he banned Gershwin from the recording studio on the condition that he would be allowed to play the unimportant orchestral celeste and piano parts during takes.

For the next couple of years Gershwin was again preoccupied with various stage projects. He also composed his first film score (for the 1930 Hollywood movie 'Delicious'), and it was a by-product of this that the Second Rhapsody first took shape. He completed it in May 1931, and the following month hired an orchestra and a recording studio to play through the work for him. In spite of his (by now) great fame, he was still remarkably unsure of himself; but after hearing the work in this way he declared that 'In many respects, such as orchestration and form, it is the best thing I've written'. Certainly Gershwin had tried to 'improve' on the episodic nature of Rhapsody in Blue by composing more serious melodies in longer paragraphs; but the loss of spontaneity which this entailed has undoubtedly counted against the work's popularity. The premiere (29 January 1932) was entrusted to another great immigrant conductor, Serge Koussevitsky, who conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the composer as piano soloist.

Gershwin made no record of the Second Rhapsody, but Paul Whiteman did take the work up in October 1938, just over a year after the composer's premature death from a brain tumour. Again there were several cuts and a certain amount of re-scoring. Two days before those sessions, Whiteman recorded a new arrangement of the Cuban Overture, made specially for that occasion by Allan Small. Gershwin had written the Overture in July and August 1932, after a holiday in Cuba. He had been impressed by the local rumba bands, and this latin colour is apparent both in the pervasive 3+3+2 rhythms of the piece (originally it was called just 'Rumba'), and in the use of claves, bongo, guiro and maracas, which ideally should be placed in front of the orchestra. The premiere on 16 August was an auspicious event: an all-Gershwin concert at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York, with an audience of nearly eighteen thousand. Small's arrangement of the work recorded by Rosa Linda and Whiteman is substantially different from the standard one, principally because it uses a solo piano part (rather in the manner of the two Rhapsodies). Though the basic material is largely the same, there is a reordering of the sections and an extensive solo cadenza in the middle.

A brief note on the performance style apparent in all these recordings: it is a great deal faster than is customary nowadays. For example, anything marked grandioso (a favourite Gershwin marking) is played grandly, but rarely slower than the previous pulse, whereas modern practice is to play these passages very broadly indeed. The implications for our understanding of an 'authentic' Gershwin style are as interesting and controversial as those of other composers who left a recorded legacy - in the analogous case of Elgar, many of the composer's recordings were made at much the same time, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There was, of course, the pressure to fit each work onto as few 78s as possible (which surely explains the large number of cuts in these recordings). But we must also accept that in refining our Gershwin performances into slick displays of pianistic and orchestral virtuosity, we may have lost some of the sheer dash and bravado that make his own (and his close collaborators') accounts so exciting, and which endeared Gershwin the man to such a wide audience.


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