Thursday 24 February 2022

Manhattan to Montmartre: Bernstein and Gershwin transcriptions from Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown

Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin Second Rhapsody, An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue; Julian Jacobson, Mariko Brown; SOMM

Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin Second Rhapsody, An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue; Julian Jacobson, Mariko Brown; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Classic American pieces that cross over between jazz and classical come up delightfully sparkling in these transcriptions for two pianists

Transcribing music for two pianists (whether at one or two pianos) can often bring new insights, shorn of the brilliance and colour of the orchestration, the work's bones are often seen better and can place the piece in new light. On this disc from SOMM, Manhattan to Montmartre, pianists Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown perform duet transcriptions of four iconic works, Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and three works by George Gershwin, Second Rhapsody, An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. The Bernstein was transcribed for two pianos by American composer John Musto in 1998. Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, and An American in Paris were transcribed for piano duet by Julian Jacobson in 2014 and 2016 respectively, whilst Rhapsody in Blue was transcribed for piano duet by Henry Levine in 1925, a version that Gershwin used to play with friends.

In 1910, more than three-quarters of the population of New York were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, so no wonder the city's musical culture developed as such a melting pot, combining music from European homelands with African American music and more. Irving Berlin was born in Russia, Vernon Duke was originally Vladimir Dukelsky, George Gershwin was the son of immigrants from Russia, Richard Rodger's grandparents were Russian immigrants whilst Leonard Bernstein's parents were from the Ukraine [I am indebted to Robert Matthew-Walker's admirable booklet note for this fascinating information]. Additional to this Russian factor should be added that many (if not all) these immigrants were of Jewish origins, the Russian pogroms against the Jews in the late-19th and early 20th centuries causing significant problems.

The sense of musical hybridisation, the creation of new strains by combining existing ones, was palpable and of course, it continued on a multiple levels. So that George Gershwin, having mastered Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway via a genre that modern research suggests owes rather a lot of Klezmer, moved to reabsorb the 20th century classical idiom. With transcriptions for piano, we no longer have to worry about whether we should be listening to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in its original jazz-band orchestration by Ferde Grofé or in the later symphonic version. The Second Rhapsody and An American in Paris would be premiered in Gershwin's own orchestrations and there is evidence to suggest that he was intending to do his own orchestral version of Rhapsody in Blue.

The disc begins, however with Bernstein, his symphonic suite based on the music from the musical. West Side Story debuted in 1957 and Bernstein created the Symphonic Dances for the New York Philharmonic, which premiered the work in 1961. This is far more then simple greatest hits, it is a 20 minute sequence that effectively tells the story in music, with writing for orchestra that is more complex than Bernstein might consider for a stage musical. 

Besides having individual solo careers, Julian Jacobsen and Mariko Brown have been playing as a piano duo since 2011 and it shows. The bring a sense of unanimity of purpose and clarity to this music. There is a lovely rhythmic snap to their Bernstein, along with a sense of relishing the complex textures and the drama. There is plenty of lyric beauty here, but what we constantly notice is Bernstein's relishing of complexity of texture, rarely are there melodies with a simple oom-pah rhythm accompaniment. We have come a long way from Tin Pan Alley of the early 20th century. And of course, the short finale is devastating and far from a traditional musical.

Gershwin regarded his Second Rhapsody as the finest thing he had written, but it rarely gets proper attention. It lacks the dazzle of the earlier rhapsody and perhaps the panache. You don't quite come out humming the tunes, but as a musical work it is more sophisticated and stronger than the earlier music. This strength comes out in Jacobson's transcription, without the brilliance and colours of the orchestra (though the two pianists demonstrate their own wide range of colours) we get a sense of the work's complex textures and remarkably mid-century musical style. Jacobson and Brown make the rhapsody seem less jazzy, and more akin to the music in Europe that Gershwin was listening to - Stravinsky, Ravel and perhaps even Bartok.

Whilst Gershwin's An American in Paris was all his own work (after Rhapsody in Blue, he did the orchestrations of his Concerto in F and American in Paris himself), Gershwin still composed at the piano and it is this factor that probably lends the work to transcription. Gershwin wasn't alone in this, Stravinsky's own piano four-hands versions of his early ballets have developed come currency and these were not arrangements but initial versions. Again the rhythmic alertness of the playing delights, along with the way the two players mesh together so that fragments emerge from the textures and disappear, reflecting the colours of the original orchestra. This is a performance that puts a real smile on the face.

Finally we reach Rhapsody in Blue. Full of rhythmic verve and a remarkable range of colours, there is a nice swing to the music yet it clearly is not jazz. The transcription brings out the Rhapsody's remarkable bones, and both Jacobson and Brown have the time of their lives with the music, managing to be fun and complex.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), transc. John Musto, 1998 - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story [21:52]
George Gershwin (1898-1937), transc. Julian Jacobson, 2014 - Second Rhapsody [15:03]
George Gershwin, transc. Julian Jacobson, 2016 - An American in Paris
George Gershwin, transc. Henry Levine, 1925 - Rhapsody in Blue
Julian Jacobson (piano)
Mariko Brown (piano)
SOMM SOMMCD 0635 1CD [72.30]
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