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A French reissue of early Gershwin conductors and pianists

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

Near the end of last January, the French DIAPASON label issued an “anthology” CD of the music of George Gershwin as part of their “indispensables” (indispensable) series. While I am not sure I would call the recordings on this album “indispensable,” the release certainly covers some of the earliest interpreters of Gershwin’s music (aside from Gershwin himself, who was not particularly interested in recording). This includes what the author of the Wikipedia page for Puerto Rican pianist Jesús Maria Sanromá calls “the first complete recording” of “Rhapsody in Blue,” made in July of 1935 with Sanromá performing with Arthur Fielder conducting the Boston Pops. There is also a recording as Earl Wild as soloist in Gershwin’s only piano concerto, also with Fiedler and the Boston Pops on a 1961 recording. The other orchestra on the album is the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, conducted by both Felix Slatkin (a 1956 recording of “An American in Paris”) and Alfred Newman (a 1961 recording of the “Second Rhapsody” with Leonard Pennario as pianist).

This makes for a rather impressive time capsule of relatively early Gershwin performances, but I am not sure how valuable this time capsule will be. Most importantly, I want to take issue with that adjective “complete” applied to the “Rhapsody in Blue” recording. If we take the 1924 publication of the score (with Ferde Grofé’s orchestration) as the standard, then there are two major cuts in the recorded performance, only one of which has anything to do with any of the four optional cuts indicated in the score. The cut that does align with the score is a piano solo and may thus have been Sanromá’s idea. The other could have come from either Fielder or a recording engineer concerned with finding the right places to change a 78 RPM record.

These days it is not hard to find an actually complete recording (including one conducted by Sergiu Celibidache). As a result, I would say that the greatest interest in the Sanromá-Fiedler recording is that it was made before Gershwin’s death in 1937. However, I have no idea whether or not Gershwin ever listened to the recording, let alone gave it his blessing. He may have just been content that, having conquered the concert hall, “Rhapsody in Blue” had made its mark on the recording industry.

On the other hand I am pretty certain that Wild concerto performance was recorded without cuts. (This was much less of an issue in 1961.) I also have to confess that I have long been a great admirer of Wild, having enjoyed many of his concert performances as well as his recordings. (Wild composed a set of études, each based on one of Gershwin’s songs, most likely inspired by what Franz Liszt had done to compositions by Niccolò Paganini.) I would even go so far as to say that I learned to listen to Gershwin by listening to Wild; and there is much to be gained from listening this his account of the concerto.

The same can be said for Slatkin’s approach to “An American in Paris.” One can definitely appreciate the “American rhetoric” of his interpretation and the ways in which it bumps into unexpected encounters on foreign soil. Also, while one can appreciate why the “Second Rhapsody” never received as much attention as the first, Pennario gives an account that makes it worth the listen; and Newman cannot be more supportive as a conductor.

If listening to this recording is like going into a time machine, then, taken as a whole, the trip is very much taking.