The spirit of New York City, in three movements
A complete performance of Concerto in F for piano by George Gershwin, performed here by Marc-André Hamelin with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.
This is one of those more classical/less jazzy performances of the work, which I actually quite like – I went so far as purchasing the score and trying to get to grips with the piano part back in my Cambridge days, when I had regular access to a Steinway model B and D.
While the Tin Pan Alley heritage of the work is important, one can sometimes make it swing too much, I think, and many modern performances seek to emphasise the jazz aspect over the work’s classical structure and elements. Such performances overlook the fact that Gershwin wrote the concerto in part to burnish his credentials as a “serious” composer rather than a mere songwriter, going so far as to take lessons in orchestration rather than relying on Ferde Grofé to translate from a two-piano version (as he did for Rhapsody in Blue).
As Ileen Zovluck writes in describing the work:
The Concerto in F was a more ambitious project than the Rhapsody and took the composer several months to complete. The work was given a trial performance before its formal premiere in 1925 by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall, with Gershwin at the piano. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff wrote “Of all those writing the music of today…he alone actually expressed us.” Like the Rhapsody, the Concerto also uses sharp contrasts but its integration through cyclic form and thematic transformation reflect Gershwin’s study of 19th century techniques. More than the earlier Rhapsody, the Concerto forms a convincing whole, the impact of which derives as much from its entire structure as from its separate parts.
The exposition of the opening Allegro of the F major Concerto is a perfect example of the perception of sonata form. The components of the second lyrical theme recall the 18th century and is made up of a series of of ideas rather than a single theme. Gershwin varies these ideas with great resource and creativity, restating them and extending them into new shapes throughout the duration of the Concerto. These consist of three motifs: a wind and percussion fanfare, a Charleston melody and a dotted arpeggiated figure. These themes are expanded almost immediately, are filled with contrast, and no portion is thematically irrelevant. The development returns to F major and the Charleston motif, which eventually becomes its own subject in a miniature Moderato cantabile. The recapitulation is introduced unambiguously with a reprise of the second theme and closes with a quodlibet that made up the first theme. As in conventional sonata form, the two main themes are now stated in the tonic in a transposition that is formed by adding the subdominant to itself.
The Adagio second movement is a song form set as a rondo in A-B-A-C-A. In the context of faint praise, in the New York Times review of the first performance, Olin Downes managed to cite the refrain theme, “a stopped trumpet playing a ‘blue’ melody against a sensuous harmonic background,” as being “perhaps the best part of the concerto.” The lush melodies of the Adagio, paired with the lilting rhythm of the strings illustrate both similarities to the Rhapsody in Blue, yet still exhibit progressive composition not seen until Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
The connection between the Adagio and the Finale, marked Allegro agitato is very strong. Within this Finale, the composer shows us a rondo form from a more rhythmic point of view. In its form of an almost-classic rondo, the orchestra opens with a furious theme in G minor. Without any indication of modulation, the piano enters on F, initiating the second statement of the rondo refrain, now its home key. Gershwin employs the highly regarded “new” American technique of a dazzling stretto with bursts of technical wizardry before returning to the rondo of the second movement. The Finale reintroduces the initial theme to form its own climax before closing on a brief coda.
My favourite studio recording of this work remains the André Previn / LSO recording featuring then-principal trumpet Howard Snell in the second movement – again, a performance that I would consider more toward the classical end of the spectrum, despite Previn’s proficiency in jazz. The LSO brass were on their usual top form throughout this excellent recording, though some of the percussion is unfortunately drowned out at times.
For a more jazz-leaning performance, the New York Philharmonic’s season-opening concert this year, with Aaron Diehl at the piano and live-streamed on Facebook, was an excellent and equally enjoyable example.
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