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Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, Songbook / Donohoe


Release Date: 02/12/2008 
Label:  Emi Classics   Catalog #: 08995   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter DonohoeAlan Whitehead
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London SinfoniettaCity of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 7 Mins. 

CD not available: This title is currently only available as an MP3 download.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

A fantastic bargain … all-round exceptional performances, beautifully recorded.

Popular music in post-First World War America was dominated by the dance craze of ragtime. Ragtime had been present for several years, the province of black musicians and, therefore, deemed ‘dangerous’ by white society. It was not until Irving Berlin composed the hugely popular ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ in 1911, purging the form of any hint of ‘danger’ and eschewing any element of risk, that ragtime became acceptable.

This hijacking of Afro-American forms, from Stephen Foster to ragtime, would continue throughout the twentieth century; it would happen with jazz in the 1920s, rock and roll in the 1950s, funk in the 1970s,
Read more reggae in the 1980s and hip-hop/rap in the 1990s. For much of the following decade ragtime would be the pre-eminent form of dance music in America. However, in 1924 Louis Armstrong and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra visited New York for the first time; the same year saw Gershwin bring ‘jazz’ into the concert hall with his Rhapsody in Blue.

A response to a commission from Paul Whiteman to compose a ‘jazz concerto’ for his ‘Experiment in Modern Music’, Rhapsody in Blue was an immediate and enduring success. It has also become one of the most unfairly maligned and disfigured works in the repertoire, suffering more indignities than perhaps any other. Dr Alicia Zizzo has identified hundreds of details of articulation, tempo and style that were altered for the work’s original publication. Furthermore, over fifty bars of solo piano were eliminated between the first performance and the initial publication. The reinstatement of these passages solves certain structural problems; it also creates others. The central ‘love theme’ (actually a fox-trot) has, over the years, become so slow and sentimental that an exact doubling of tempo for the second half of each phrase has become necessary.

It is hard to think of any other work by a major composer that has been treated to such a blatant disregard for the author’s intentions. True, the work is not without flaws; the structure has oft been criticized and the content is a curious blend of ragtime, stride, romantic virtuosity and impressionism. Yet the piece, when played as originally written, has an energy and exuberance that is very much of its time, reflecting the unparalleled optimism and liberalism of 1920s America, a nation discovering its own voice across all of the arts (not to mention the joys of sex, smoking and greatly increased alcohol consumption). Rhapsody in Blue is no more a romantic concerto that it is real jazz; taken at face value it is simply great entertainment.

In this performance, originating from the Rattle’s cracking 1987 Jazz Album (currently available on Classics For Pleasure 5218602), Ferde Grofé’s original orchestration for the Whiteman Band is used. The differences between this and the more popular revision for symphony orchestra are immediately obvious, with upfront saxophones replacing syrupy strings. It’s a risky strategy given that Grofé was writing for specific, and unique, talents; Several modern performances of this original version begin to sound more like Weill than Gershwin. Not so here. Rattle’s London Sinfonietta make perhaps the most convincing argument that I have yet to hear for performing the electrifying original. Electrifying it certainly is, and not simply due to some daringly helter-skelter tempi.

Rattle does not re-instate any of the extra material that Zizzo has unearthed; however, he does take the original score at its word, with several interesting effects. There are four bars of tutti that remain in the performance materials that inexplicably disappeared from every published edition; Rattle plays them. The climactic ascent, usually marked by a huge broadening of tempo is here played as written in the original score, beginning with a slight drop in tempo and then accelerating towards the top of the scale.

In amongst all this vim and vigour, it requires a pianist of the musicality and understanding of Peter Donohoe. He plays with distinction and a sense of wit without ‘hamming’ it. I would not at all be surprised if Rattle and Donohoe had listened to the two (abridged) recordings that the composer made with the Whiteman Band where it is clear that all the mad-cap antics were provided by the band whilst Gershwin played it straight.

In the 1945 movie Rhapsody in Blue (a ‘biopic’ of Gershwin which in time honoured tradition was a great deal more fiction than fact) a performance of the last movement of the Concerto in F is interrupted after the climactic tam-tam stroke so that the conductor can announce to the audience that the composer has died. Said conductor then turns back to the orchestra and recommences the performance. It is a horribly melodramatic scene, one which unintentionally highlights one of Gershwin’s weakest compositional moments. The tam-tam stroke is in itself and interruption to the flow of the music; Gershwin has lost his way and so needs a dramatic gesture in order to return to earlier material for the coda.

During the opening tutti of the present performance I feared that Rattle would distort the flow of the music to near incoherence. True, there are times where his rallentandi beggar belief but, on the whole, I found this one of the most satisfying accounts of the work on disc. Rattle has often been accused of self-consciously ‘cherry-picking’ details in his performances and that is certainly in evidence here. Yet, more importantly, he frequently displays his extraordinary ability to balance textures to reveal inner lines that actually contribute to, rather than detract from, the musical argument. And then there is his sense of rhythm; anyone who has heard his famous recording of Porgy and Bess will know what vitality he brings to that score through the understanding that - in this repertoire at least - speed does not necessarily equal excitement. Rattle allows Gershwin’s Charleston rhythms in the first movement enough time to make their effect felt.

The CBSO really do step up to the mark here. The orchestration sounds so fresh, articulation in the quicker moments the equal of any on record. Some may miss a certain degree of brashness to the playing and yet that is merely a side effect of the level of detail that Rattle unearths. Special notice should be given to Alan Whitehead’s trumpet solo in the second movement; it was, I believe, his CBSO swansong in this very work with the exact same forces that I witnessed in a remarkable all-Gershwin programme at Symphony Hall in the mid-1990s. The immensely touching speech that Rattle gave after the performance was a fitting testament to the relationship between conductor and orchestra at that time.

In the end, though, any performance of this work must have at its heart a convincing exponent of the solo piano part. Donohoe is exceptional. Once again, there is a level of subtlety and insight on display which is rarely given to this work but of which it completely deserves. Anyone wanting the dash and devil-may-care attitude of Earl Wild or Wayne Marshall will want to look elsewhere and yet, after repeated listening, I found myself more and more mesmerised by the Rattle/Donohoe partnership.

Many of the same qualities can be found in Donohoe’s performance of the Songbook. Essentially a money-spinning endeavour on Gershwin’s part (although, by 1932 one wonders why the sensationally successful composer felt the need to supplement his income further), the eighteen arrangements of his most popular songs are remarkably well-crafted and (unsurprisingly) idiomatic. They are also very short. When Ella Fitzgerald came to record her own ‘Gershwin Songbook’, she realised that she was going to have to learn all of the verses from scratch; in their transition from show tunes to jazz standard the verses had slipped into oblivion. Well, Gershwin appears to have set the precedent with his arrangements here, abandoning the verses altogether. Yes, the refrains feature some of the finest and most memorable tunes, but the composer’s genius was frequently most evident in the verses. One also wonders if, had Gershwin lived a few years longer, he may have added a few more numbers. Having been published in 1932, the set pre-dates all of his Hollywood work, arguably the most exquisite period of his compositional career. Nevertheless, you’d be hard pushed to forget any of the music presented here, particularly when played with such virtuosity and élan. Donohoe avoids the usual pitfalls of a ‘classical’ pianist interpreting ‘popular’ music and gives performances that are both exceptionally musical and utterly idiomatic.

All in all this is a fantastic bargain featuring all-round exceptional performances, beautifully recorded. With an invaluable Rhapsody and an interesting Concerto it is self-recommending.

-- Owen E Walton, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1.
Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
Venue:  CTS Studios, Wembley, England 
Length: 16 Minutes 12 Secs. 
Notes: Arranger: Ferde Grofé.
CTS Studios, Wembley, England (1986 - 1987) 
2.
George Gershwin's Songbook for Piano by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1932; USA 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
3.
Capitol Revue: Swanee by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919; New York, USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 32 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
4.
La La Lucille: Nobody but you by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 52 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
5.
Lady, be Good: The man I love by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 1 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
6.
George White's Scandals of 1922: I'll build a stairway to paradise by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1922; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 38 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
7.
French Doll: Do it again by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1922; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 1 Minutes 36 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
8.
Lady, be Good: Fascinating rhythm by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 45 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
9.
Lady, Be Good!: Oh, Lady be good by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 1 Minutes 5 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
10.
George White's Scandals of 1924: Somebody loves me by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 46 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
11.
Tip-toes: Sweet and low-down by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; New York, USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 1 Minutes 20 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
12.
Oh, Kay!: Clap yo' hands by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 34 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
13.
Oh, Kay!: Do, Do, Do by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 45 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
14.
Funny Face: My one and only by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 39 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
15.
Funny Face: 'S Wonderful by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 46 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
16.
Strike up the Band: Strike up the band by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1927/1929; New York, USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 0 Minutes 48 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
17.
Of Thee I Sing: Who cares? by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1931; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 1 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
18.
Tip-toes: That certain feeling by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; New York, USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 1 Minutes 6 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
19.
Show Girl: Liza "All the clouds'll roll away" by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 2 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
20.
Girl Crazy: I got rhythm by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/1990 
Venue:  EMI Abbey Road Studio no 1, London, UK 
Length: 1 Minutes 13 Secs. 
Notes: Version: 1932 
21.
Concerto for Piano in F major: 1st movement, Allegro by George Gershwin
Performer:  Peter Donohoe (Piano), Alan Whitehead (Trumpet)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/1990 
Venue:  University of Warwick, England 
Length: 13 Minutes 10 Secs. 
22.
Concerto for Piano in F major: 2nd movement, Adagio - Andante con moto by George Gershwin
Performer:  Alan Whitehead (Trumpet), Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/1990 
Venue:  University of Warwick, England 
Length: 11 Minutes 56 Secs. 
23.
Concerto for Piano in F major: 3rd movement, Allegro Agitato by George Gershwin
Performer:  Alan Whitehead (Trumpet), Peter Donohoe (Piano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; USA 
Date of Recording: 10/1990 
Venue:  University of Warwick, England 
Length: 6 Minutes 47 Secs. 

Featured Sound Samples

Rhapsody in Blue
George Gershwin's Songbook for Piano: I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise
Piano Concerto in F: I. Allegro

Sound Samples

Rhapsody in Blue (orig. version with jazz band)
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Swanee
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Nobody but you
George Gershwin's Song-Book: The man I love
George Gershwin's Song-Book: I'll build a stairway to paradise
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Do it again
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Fascinating rhythm
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Oh, lady, be good!
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Somebody loves me
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Sweet and low-down
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Clap yo' hands
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Do, do, do
George Gershwin's Song-Book: My one and only
George Gershwin's Song-Book: 's Wonderful
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Strike up the band
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Who cares?
George Gershwin's Song-Book: That certain feeling
George Gershwin's Song-Book: Liza (All the clouds'll roll away)
George Gershwin's Song-Book: I got rhythm
Piano Concerto in F: I. Allegro
Piano Concerto in F: II. Adagio - Andante con moto
Piano Concerto in F: III. Allegro agitato

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  2 Customer Reviews )
 Gorgeous Gershwin April 19, 2013 By Gary Mitchell (Independence, KS) See All My Reviews "This has got to be one of the best recordings of Gershwin's Piano Concerto ever made. I have always favored Earl Wild/Fiedler/Boston Pops but this recording with Donohoe and Rattle is cleaner, sharper and just as energized. Donohoe sings his way through the Songbook. Contagious rhythms, familiar tunes, and great piano playing. The Rhapsody in Blue has so many competitors. I can't rank this as any better than dozens of others I have heard, but it's the shortest work on the CD. The other two works won me over." Report Abuse
 A Mediocre Gershwin August 27, 2012 By W. Brown (Centerburg, OH) See All My Reviews "This cd with Simon Rattle conducting Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue comes highly recommended, but I must admit I was a bit disappointed. My fault is with the recording- the piano is too distant for my taste. I prefer a more up front approach. The strength lies in the interpretation. Rattle brings out some very interesting nuances in the work, which in itself, is worth the purchase. Gershwin's Songbook and Piano Concerto are both recorded well. Overall, a cd to add to one's collection; however, there are other versions out there that I find much better." Report Abuse
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