ON THE RECORD: Revisiting a "Rhapsody" with Gershwin and Copeland's "Rodeo"

By Steven Suskin
01 Sep 2013

Like "An American in Paris," the 1932 "Cuban Overture" came from a trip abroad; Gershwin packed his steamer trunk with souvenir Parisian taxi horns for the first and a collection of native Cuban percussion instruments for the other. I am quite partial to this "Cuban Overture," perhaps because I've heard it far less frequently than the "big three." For a 1934 concert tour celebrating the tenth anniversary of the "Rhapsody," Gershwin threw together a nine-minute string of "I Got Rhythm" variations, which are quite atmospheric.

His final concert work was "Suite from Porgy and Bess," which premiered (with George at the piano) at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in Jan. 1936 — just four days before the opera itself closed at the Alvin in New York. The score disappeared altogether after Gershwin's death in 1937, as a result of which a second such Porgy piece — Russell Bennett's 1942 Symphonic Picture — became the standard. Gershwin's version was discovered in storage in 1958, at which point Ira renamed it "Catfish Row" to avoid confusion with Bennett's piece. I decidedly prefer "Catfish Row," as George constructed it from his original orchestrations for the opera. Porgy fans should note that it includes the deleted "Jazzbo Brown" piano solo, with which Gershwin intended to open the opera as a lead-in to "Summertime."

"Rhapsody in Blue," featuring Orion Weiss on piano and John Fullam on clarinet, is paired with "Catfish Row" on the newer of the two releases. Also included are two minor pieces. "Promenade" is another piece of film work, derived from the "Walking the Dog" sequence in the 1937 Fred Astaire film "Shall We Dance?" This was arranged into a piece for orchestra and solo clarinet back around 1960 by Sol Berkowitz. It has been newly adapted for this recording, and not effectively so. Also included is the "Strike Up the Band" Overture devised and orchestrated by Don Rose in 1976.

The other disc is headed by, and entitled, "Concerto in F." Also included are the "Second Rhapsody" and the "I Got Rhythm" Variations, with Orion Weiss again serving as piano soloist. These are not the altogether finest recordings of the works that I have ever heard, perhaps, but they are high on the list and most welcome.

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Copland: Rodeo (Complete Ballet) [Naxos]
At the same time, Naxos and its "American Classics" series have brought us a new recording of Aaron Copland's grand 1942 ballet, Rodeo. I have been listening to Leonard Slatkin's 1986 recording of the piece (paired with the earlier Copland ballet, Billy the Kid) since — well, since 1986. A quarter century later we have Slatkin once again, this time with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Both performances are wonderful; this one seems slightly more raffish, to me, and is thus favored.