GERSHWIN Porgy and Bess: Suite. Lullaby. KERN All the Things You Are. The Way You Look Tonight. Bill. The Song Is You. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Once in a Blue Moon • Alexander Qrt; Joan Enric Lluna (cl) • FOGHORN 2008 (48:15) Available at FoghornClassics.com or ASQ4.com
This is a delightful album. So often classical artists’ forays into the great American songbook prove disappointing. Here, however, weRead more have music superbly crafted for chamber ensemble. Carl Davis’s arrangement of Porgy and Bess selections for clarinet and string quartet is especially apropos, since Gershwin at the end of his life was considering writing a string quartet. Davis worked from Jascha Heifetz’s marvelous versions of these songs for violin and piano, then added cadenzas for clarinet to link the songs. Joan Enric Lluna plays with the full, rich tone of a virtuoso classical clarinetist, rather than the reedier sound of a jazz artist. In “Summertime,” the strings produce an appropriately sultry background, while Lluna riffs brilliantly on the tune. He gets a bluesy sound in “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” In “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” Lluna phrases intimately, as if he is singing to his beloved. Gershwin’s friend Oscar Levant called this song “Porgy in Vienna,” and this instrumental version with its elegantly played string solos is redolent of Lehár. For “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” the ensemble’s sound is insinuating and ironic, with a somewhat acid tone. It’s a flashy ending to a rewarding work.
Jerome Kern made arrangements of six of his songs in the 1940s that his assistant Charles Miller transcribed for string quartet. The Gordon String Quartet, founding ensemble of the Music Mountain chamber music series in Connecticut, recorded the songs in 1949, and it is a mystery why they have not entered the string-quartet repertory. For listeners who think of Kern basically as a tunesmith, the sustained invention of these arrangements may come as a surprise. They are beautifully made and immensely sophisticated. All the Things You Are has a Brahmsian feel, and is tenderly played. The extensive solo lines in The Way You Look Tonight are reminiscent in manner of Borodin’s Second Quartet. The song makes me think of my lady friend, which is as it should be. The Alexander’s playing in Bill has a wistful quality that does justice to the meaning of the song. The mood borders on the teary-eyed, but only just. The Song Is You features an extended Beethovenian introduction, with hints of another Kern song I can’t identify. The tune itself, played over a swooning cello part, has an operetta feel reminiscent of Sigmund Romberg. As an introduction to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Kern employs another song, Yesterdays. In the main tune, the playing captures the sense of regret in the song, although given its risible lyrics I prefer to hear it in an instrumental version. Finally, Once in a Blue Moon frequently sounds like Grieg, another master tunesmith and miniaturist.
The program ends with Gershwin’s early Lullaby. The Alexander’s basic tempo here is wonderful, just bluesy enough. The B section possesses the cozy warmth appropriate to a lullaby. Veteran producer Judith Sherman has provided exceptional sound engineering, greatly adding to the luster of these fine performances. If your interest is piqued to hear classical artists engage with these songwriters, I would recommend Kiri Te Kanawa’s albums of Gershwin and Kern songs, plus Ralph Grierson and Artie Kane’s two-piano album of Gershwin. For those who are not put off by an easy-listening sound, arranger and conductor Paul Weston’s The Columbia Album of Jerome Kern is a marvelous compendium, with extensive notes by a young Stephen Sondheim. I hope the Alexander’s CD reaches the hands of other enterprising string quartets. The Davis and Kern arrangements really belong in the concert repertory, and I can’t think of a better advocate for them than the performances on this album.