Gershwin / Rhapsody In Blue – We Changed Our Minds Again

Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of George Gershwin

More Spectacular Orchestral Recordings

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I’ve always loved these performances, but the crude, smeary and painfully-shrill-at-louder-levels Columbia sound quality had always been a powerful barrier to my enjoyment of them.

So many copies suffer from upper-midrangy, glary, hard sound and blary brass. I had come to accept that this is nothing more nor less than “The Sound of Columbia Classical.” As a consequence we rarely put much effort into cleaning and testing their vintage pressings; the good ones were just too hard to find.

I won’t say all that’s changed; it really hasn’t. The vast majority of Columbia classical pressings are still going to sound more or less as awful as they have in the past.

However, there are properly mastered pressings of this album that display little of the “Columbia sound” we describe above. They would obviously be the ones that would do well in our shootouts, as long as they are not too thin, bright and modern sounding.

There was a time when we thought the Red Label Seventies pressings were the best way to hear these performances. This time around that was not the case, as none of them had the heft and Tubey Magical strings and brass of our best early pressings.

Nothing could touch this amazing sounding Six Eye pressing.

Nothing could touch the Six Eye pressing of the Bernstein recording we played either, for what that’s worth.

OUR MOST RECENT HOT STAMPER COMMENTARY

  • This Columbia Six Eye has Shootout Winning Triple Plus (A+++) sound for the Rhapsody in Blue on side two – reasonably quiet vinyl too, especially for an early stereo LP
  • As would be expected, both sides are exceptionally rich and Tubey Magical, but the clarity, deep bass and powerful, dynamic sound of side two surprised the hell out of us – we’ve never heard the work reproduced with this kind of authority or fidelity
  • The first two movements of the Concerto in F found on side one earned a solid grade of Double Plus (A++) for their full brass and especially clear, solid, present piano, one with practically no trace of vintage analog tube smear
  • Performed with consummate skill and attention to detail – the results are magnificent!

Finally, the sound we’ve been searching for – rich, tubey and real, with nicely textured strings. The piano is solid, rich, high-rez and percussive — there is hardly any Old School smear or hardness to be heard, always important to the proper reproduction of any piano recording, whether the music is jazz, classical or rock. (We talk about smeary, hard pianos on many of our listings for those of you who take the time to read them.)

Here is the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records rarely even BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the orchestra, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What the best sides of Previn’s recording of the Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue have to offer is not hard to hear:

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1960
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional space of the studio

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

A Big Group Of Musicians Needs This Kind Of Space

One of the qualities that we don’t talk about on the site nearly enough is the SIZE of the record’s presentation. Some copies of the album just sound small — they don’t extend all the way to the outside edges of the speakers, and they don’t seem to take up all the space from the floor to the ceiling. In addition, the sound can often be recessed, with a lack of presence and immediacy in the center.

Other copies — my notes for these copies often read “BIG and BOLD” — create a huge soundfield, with the music positively jumping out of the speakers. They’re not brighter, they’re not more aggressive, they’re not hyped-up in any way, they’re just bigger and clearer.

And most of the time those very special pressings are more dynamic and exciting. When you hear a copy that does all that, it’s an entirely different listening experience.

What We’re Listening For on Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness common to most LPs.
  • Tight, note-like bass — which ties in with good transient information, as well as the issue of frequency extension further down.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the players.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

Concerto In F (Beginning)

Side Two

Concerto In F (Conclusion)
Rhapsody In Blue

RHAPSODY IN BLUE

Just what type of musical creature is the Rhapsody in Blue? From the very outset, commentators have struggled to describe it. Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony play the Rhapsody in Blue – Westminster LP album cover Gershwin had declared his intention as breaking down misconceptions about the limitations of jazz.

But such terminology is confusing – this wasn’t the same spontaneously improvised “jazz” that his contemporaries Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton and Bix Biederbecke were creating. Rather, it was a mainstream version filtered into dance arrangements that stretched conventional rules with a novel edge of some harmonic flights, rhythmic variation and emphatic playing. Whiteman’s claim to have been “The King of Jazz” must have gotten a good sneer from real jazz musicians.

Far more cogent is John Struble’s observation that Gershwin approached all music as a songwriter. His strength was as one of the great instinctive melodists of all time. Although he did receive some formal musical training, his abiding weakness was structure.

Thus, notwithstanding a great love for the piece, Leonard Bernstein disparaged the Rhapsody in Blue as “not a composition at all [but] a string of … terrific tunes … stuck together with a thin paste of flour and water.” Arthur Schwartz agreed, calling the development and transitions “more intuition than tuition.”

All Gershwin’s works discount traditional development and proceed linearly from one event to the next. The appealing result, as Alex North observed, is a natural, sincere expression which, as James Lyons noted, manifests the confidence and nervous energy of the “Roaring Twenties.”

Perhaps the most reliable measure of the Rhapsody’s originality is that it had no direct descendants. Indeed, subsequent attempts to meld pop and serious music always seem awkward. Yet, its fame and impact inspired many serious composers, including Ravel, Stravinsky and Milhaud, to explore jazz and stirred countless pop composers to dabble in classical forms.

Peter Gutmann

Gershwin

Gershwin’s melding of the classical and popular was beautifully summed up by the composer and Gershwin biographer David Schiff in an article, Misunderstanding Gershwin, written for the Atlantic Monthly in 1998, from which the following:

In Gershwin’s music the classical element is minutely stylized, not the popular. The piano concerto, for instance, begins with a percussion fanfare that has little to do with the rest of the work but is a saucy send-up of classical pretensions, as is the elaborate faux fugue that surfaces (and vanishes) in the final movement.

Although Gershwin’s stylization of the classics was most often based on Liszt and Tchaikovsky, he kept abreast of contemporary developments, and turned them to his own purposes. In An American in Paris he showed that even without studying with [Nadia] Boulanger he could imitate the insouciance of Les Six – the group of young composers who were all the rage in Paris – and make use of polytonal harmonies out of Stravinsky, while writing tunes that were memorable and completely Gershwinesque.

And in Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ he conspicuously deployed Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method in one variation. Gershwin’s use of these classical devices was not inept and half-baked, as his critics claimed; these sly, knowing trivializations opened a dialogue between classical and popular elements in which the popular side – those gorgeous tunes – would dominate.”

Herbert Glass

An Appreciation

Perhaps the most remarkable appreciation came in 1938 as a posthumous tribute from none other than Arnold Schoenberg, arguably the most influential composer of the twentieth century, but whose rigid formal esthetics were diametrically opposed to Gershwin’s free-flowing inspiration:

Gershwin is an artist and a composer – he expressed musical ideas, and they were new, as is the way he expressed them. … An artist is to me like an apple tree. When the time comes, whether it wants to or not it bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. … Serious or not, he is a composer, that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language. … What he has done with rhythm, harmony and melody is not merely style. It is fundamentally different from the mannerism of many a serious composer [who writes] a superficial union of devices applied to a minimum of ideas. … The impression is of an improvisation with all the merits and shortcomings appertaining to this kind of production. … He only feels he has something to say and he says it.

Peter Gutman

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