Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Gerstein plays Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F

Kirill Gerstein - Gerswhin
George Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto in F; Kirill Gerstein, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson; Myrios Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 19 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Performances which combine jazz sensibility with classical virtuosity

George Gershwin's symphonic music, the Rhapsody in Blue, the Piano Concerto in F and the Second Rhapsody exist on the cusp between popular jazz and classical. As such the works can have a variety of interpretations, and it says something for the remarkable strength of the Rhapsody in Blue that it can stand up to a wide variety of approaches. The problem comes when classical artists venture too close to jazz, and the results can sometimes seem strained.

This new disc from pianist Kirill Gerstein and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, conductor David Robertson, has an interesting pedigree because Gerstein's training in fact spanned the classical and the jazz, which makes his interpretations well worth hearing. Recorded live, we have a pairing of Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F, plus a selection of Earl Wilde's Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin, a piece by Oscar Levant (a composer/pianist much associated with the later recording history of the Rhapsody in Blue), and Gershwin's Summertime.

As a young man in Russia, Kirill Gerstein was much influenced by his parents' jazz record collection, and at the age of 14 he moved to the USA to study jazz piano with Gary Burton (who plays vibraphone on the Oscar Levant piece on the disc) at Berklee College, and only later did Gerstein decide to focus on classical piano.

This means that his approach to the music is quite free, in both the Rhapsody in Blue and in the Piano Concerto in F, Gerstein introduces improvisations and takes a creative approach to the solo part, this is very much not 'come scritto' but is certainly in the spirit of the original works.

Rhapsody in Blue is performed in the original jazz band orchestration, which the St Louis forces take to well giving a lithe yet vibrant account of the score. It is a well nourished sound, yet conductor David Robertson is able to move tempos with the right degree of liveliness. Gerstein's playing is fluid, and combines a classical pianist's technical ability with a nice freedom. His performance seems to ignore the bar lines in the right way, yet he kicks up a wonderfully devastating storm in the final sections of the work. This is wonderfully exciting, and fluid interpretation.

The Piano Concerto in F is far more symphonic in style, partly because Gershwin was writing a full-scale three-movement concerto but also because Gershwin's own technique had developed and he orchestrated the concerto himself. That is not to say there are not jazz influences here too, and Gerstein plays with great freedom, introducing jazz-influenced flourishes and creating some really cocktail-bar-jazz like moments in the more intimate solo passages, yet there is grand symphonic sweep too and the two seem to integrate well. The first movement finishes in a wonderfully exciting, virtuoso manner which manages never to be untrue to Gershwin. The slow movement has a wonderfully laid-back bluesy feel from both the orchestra and soloist, and I am reminded of the rather sleazy visuals which Jerome Robbins added to this movement in his 1982 ballet for New York City Ballet.

Earl Wilde's Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin were a delightful new discovery for me, lovely combination of the Romantic 19th century piano tradition with Gershwin's melody, recalling Percy Grainger's Gershwin arrangements. The other pieces make and attractive and slightly unusual fillers, and Storm Large's vocals in Summertime certainly do takes us more into the jazz-inflected mood.

The recording was made live, at various times, but based around  pair of concerts which Gerstein, the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and David Robertson gave in 2017, this means that the performances have a real vibrancy and tingle to them, a combination of genuine excitement and live thrills from Gerstein. The record producers seem to have decided to keep rather more of the audience reaction than is desirable, not just the roar after the end of the Rhapsody in Blue but the similar eruption after the conclusion of the first movement of the concerto, well deserved certainly but likely to annoy after repeated listening.

The CD booklet includes an article by Joseph Horowitz (the American writer rather than the composer), which gives some fascinating background to differences in reception of Gershwin's music in America and in Europe.

George Gershhin (1898-1937) - Rhapsody in Blue (jazz band version, orch. Ferde Grofe)
Earl Wilde (1915-2010) - Virtuoso Etudes After Gershwin: 'Somebody Loves Me', 'I Got Rhythm', 'Embraceable You'
Oscar Levant (1906-1972) - Blame It On My Youth
George Gershwin - Summertime
George Gershwin - Piano Concerto in F
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Storm Large (vocals)
Gary Burton (vibraphone)
St Louis Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)
Recorded live 7-9 April 2017 in Powerll Hall, St Louis, 8 May 2014 at Gilmore Festival, Williams Theatre, Kalamazoo, 30 March 2012 at Berkelee Performance Center, Boston
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Musical Arcadia: Handel at Vauxhall on Signum Classics - CD review (****)
  • Motherhood and memory: Helen Grime's Bright Travellers at the Wigmore Hall - Concert review (****)
  • Bernstein, Gubaidulina & more: violinist Vadim Gluzman on the importance of contemporary repertoire  - Interview
  • Music in a cold climate: the sounds of Hansa Europe - CD review (***)
  • Spices! Perfumes! Toxins! Approachably melodic percussion concerto - CD review - CD review (***)
  • A Triptych: Irrational Theatre at the King's Head - Opera review (***)
  • Topsy-turvy fun: Cal McCrystal directs G&S's Iolanthe - Opera review (*****)
  • Old-fashioned passion: Benjamin Godard's Dante - CD review
  • Korngold's Die tote Stadti at the Semperoper in Dresden - Opera review (****)
  • Powerful stuff: Verdi's La forza del Destino in Cardiff - Opera review (****)
  • A Portrait: composer Dai Fujikura introduces the music at the forthcoming Wigmore Hall concert  - my interview
  • Wagner Der Ring des Nibelungen - Willy Decker's production at the Semperoper, Dresden - opera review
  • Home

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