Top Ear

A Great Time with Levine’s Gershwin

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Jeremy Lee writes

I think this is my third article on Gershwin, but I’m not bored with this fascinating composer just yet:  there are just so many great, idiomatic recordings of this genius’s music calling for our attention (not that there aren’t any other composers which I would say the same for).  This album by Levine and the Chicagoans is one of the best recordings of the popular and evergreen Gershwin duo (that is the Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris) I’ve heard, and as you would expect, both performers and conductor make all the right noises.

To keep things concise:  the Rhapsody, with Levine performing double-duty as conductor and pianist, is rhythmically taut and crisp, and although Levine’s piano playing isn’t as seasoned or jazz-pianist-like as MTT’s (who also did double-duty in this piece, a very pleasant surprise), he makes for a competent, sensitive soloist (I suspect that this is the only readily available recording in which Levine plays the piano).  The Chicago Symphony responds to his leadership with some brilliantly raw-edged playing–note how the saxophones cut through the textures like no other version–and great solo work.  Of course this must be due to Levine’s selection of the leaner Ferde Grofé jazz-band orchestration which removes quite a lot of that saccharine sweetness of the regular one, which is to my mind a Good Thing.  Same goes for the An American in Paris and the Porgy and Bess suite (Catfish Row), in which Levine and his band swing, strut and sing their way through, like an authentic big band of the 20s would.  Great stuff!  And then there’s the Cuban Overture, a work which I find much more suitable for the piano than a full symphony orchestra.  With intricate voicings and complexity comparable to those found in the knackiest Françaix piece, pulling off this piece successfully with the orchestra is no mean feat, but it’s a challenge the Chicagoans relish, and they make the most of it with their sharp and unwavering sense of rhythm, as well as a fascinating palate of tone colors.

In sum, an album I recommend wholeheartedly, and while you may want MTT for the Rhapsody and Bernstein for the American in Paris, having both pieces done equally satisfyingly in the same album is rare.  MTT is one.  This is another.

[Apologia:  My colleague Leonard is currently drowning in an ocean of workload, and as a result his Anniversary Review has had to be postponed.  He promises it will be published this week.  Apologies where due.]


  • Album name:  Gershwin:  Rhapsody in Blue;  An American in Paris;  “Porgy and Bess” Suite (Catfish Row);  Cuban Overture
  • Performers:  James Levine (conductor, pianist);  Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  DG 431 625-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  67:01

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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