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Thursday, July 14, 2016

He’s Got Rhythm

PIANIST LINCOLN MAYORGA has been championing the music of George Gershwin with virtuoso accomplishment over the course of a long career, essentially picking up where Oscar Levant left off, but without the neurasthenia. But Mayorga is much more than a Gershwin specialist. Early-career piano soloists tend to get a lot of “Rhapsody in Blue” work en route to the European repertory, sadly affirming a received notion that Gershwin’s music is “light” music – and, by extension, that American music, unless it sounds European (MacDowell’s, Chadwick’s, e.g.), just ain’t as good.

That’s not what Mayorga is doing. If he pays more attention to American music – which includes the most compelling body of song since Schubert – it’s because he’s long been at home in that vernacular, performing professionally in radio orchestras and recording sessions that included work with Phil Ochs and Marni Nixon, among many others. He is a composer – he wrote music for the TV show “Fame,” and he’s a writer of popular songs and instrumentals. I first saw him in performance many years ago as partner to violinist Arnold Steinhardt, deftly exploring the classical repertory, and then was amazed to discover that he was a founder of the high-end record label Sheffield Labs, one of those rare entities that guarantees good listening by virtue of its reputation alone.

Mayorga has found a sympathetic partner in conductor Steven Richman, whose work with the Harmonie Ensemble / New York is the American equivalent of early Nicholas Harnoncourt recordings: they seek to redress the decades of well-meaning but wrong-headed re-interpretations of classic scores. Although it now seems heretical to suggest that Bach’s orchestrations could be bettered, Gershwin’s road to respect remains impeded by “improvements.”

“Rhapsody in Blue” is a case in point. Written in 1924 for a Paul Whiteman commission, it was first scored for Whiteman’s jazz band by Ferde Grofé, who went on to make a full orchestration of the piece in the late ’30s, which is the version most familiar to us. But there’s an infectious punch to that jazz-band arrangement, as evidenced by a 1976 recording conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, a version constrained only by its need to synchronize with Gershwin’s own piano-roll version of the solo part (a part cut for two pianos but reduced to one by guessing which of the piano-roll holes were accompaniment and adhesive-taping over them).

Mayorga and Richman recorded the 1924 version on a must-have collection released in 2010, a disc that also includes Grofé’s arrangements of a number of Gershwin songs and Mayorga as soloist in Gershwin’s orchestration of his “I Got Rhythm” variations. A few years before that, they tackled still more of the Gershwin and Grofé catalogue on a disc concentrating on the latter, but including Gershwin’s original orchestration of his own “Second Rhapsody,” a piece altered almost out of recognition by later well-meaning hands.

Which brings us to the Concerto in F. Commissioned by conductor Walter Damrosch immediately after the “Rhapsody in Blue” premiere, it emerged as a three-movement work celebrating jazz rhythms and orchestrated by its composer. But it, too, fell victim to the we-know-betters, and has suffered under an inflated orchestration. Mayorga and Richman have gone back to Gershwin’s original for a soon-to-be issued CD that also features Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and a version of his Three Preludes orchestrated by Roy Bargy, another Whiteman alumnus.

The disc kicks off with a brief “Of Thee I Sing” overture arranged by Louis Katzman for a 1934 radio broadcast, and it’s a well-chosen, excellently played entry into the sound of this material: vibrant, jazzy, unburdened by too many strings. The Concerto in F follows, and, not surprisingly, has a lively balance between piano and ensemble, both in terms of recorded sound and performance nuance. Although somewhat more constrained in its freewheeling elements than either of the rhapsodies, the concerto nevertheless has a jazz voice best served by a jazz-sensitive performer, and Mayorga ideally fits that bill, his transparent virtuosity giving him the foundation on which to build an interpretation that breathes with rhythmic variety. If the languorous middle movement seems unsentimental, it’s appropriately so. Like the slow movement of Beethoven’s G-Major concerto, it’s a dialogue between disagreeing factions, and the contrast is well-realized in this performance. And the last movement is a satisfying fingerbuster that hints at Rachmaninoff territory, had the Russian indulged in more syncopation.

This recording, which will be released August 26, also redresses the wrongs done to “An American in Paris,” both by restoring the composer’s original score and by bringing it in at a tempo that suits its nervous energy. It’s a work that bears close attention when performed like this, because it reminds us that Gershwin’s genius went far beyond his wellspring of catchy tunes. He had an for American music, itself an extension of American speech, and, in particular, American slang, and he knew like none before him how to express that in orchestral terms. Paris may have been the destination, but the origins remain deeply rooted in the USA. Get the first two Mayorga-Richman harmonia mundi CDs while you wait for this one to be released, and then complete your collection.

George Gershwin
An American in Paris / Concerto in F / Three Preludes / “Of Thee I Sing” Overture
Lincoln Mayorga, pianist
Harmonie Ensemble / New York
Steven Richman, conductor
harmonia mundi


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