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George Gershwin
Piano Concerto in F Major
Maurice Ravel
Concerto in G Major
Helene Grimaud, piano
David Zinman conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Review By Max Westler
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CD Number: Erato 0630-19571-2

 

  Gershwin and Ravel knew and admired each other, and their first meeting was the occasion of a famous musical remark. When Gershwin asked Ravel to take him on as a student, Ravel replied, "Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?" (When Gershwin made the same request of Stravinsky, the older composer echoed Ravel's reply: "Rather, I should become your student.") Not surprisingly, Ravel envied Gershwin's improvisatory skills and daring, and Gershwin envied Ravel's elegant formal mastery and restraint. Accordingly, though both composers used jazz in their compositions, they did so to achieve very different ends. By taking jazz inside the concert hall, Gershwin wanted to lend it highbrow respectability and stature. Ravel, on the other hand, used jazz to disrupt and gently mock the expectations of his audience.

Surprisingly, only three recordings have paired these two concertos, which might seem to belong together: an older one featuring Andrew Litton as both soloist and conductor with the Bournemouth Orchestra, a recent one with Pascal Roge and Betrand DeBilly conducting the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra , and this one from several years ago (that I'm only getting around to reviewing now). The Litton and the Roge/DeBilly are more or less conventional readings of both works, though it's clear that Roge is the better pianist. Grimaud and Zinman are anything but conventional, and that is the reason I wanted to bring this recording to your attention in spite of its age. If you're looking for something different in these two familiar, if not overly familiar works, these performances are worth seeking out.

Most pianists and conductors tend to emphasize the jazzy, bluesy element in the Gerswhin concerto, to present it as a "popular" work that, like his breezy show tunes, aims to do nothing more than please. That approach slights structural unity for brash and sometimes vulgar display, making Gershwin seem a better showman than a composer. Shockingly, Grimaud and Zinman take the concerto seriously. From their very individual viewpoint, Gershwin was not using jazz to finesse the challenge of writing a great classical concerto; which is to say, the Concerto in F is a very different and far more ambitious work than the Rhapsody in Blue.

How does such an approach sound in actual practice? Well, for one thing, tempos tend to be a bit slower, weightier than usual, but there is also more variety and contrast. In the hands of Grimaud and Zinman, You'll be surprised to hear more power and tension in dramatic passages, more inwardness in the lyric passages. The big melodies are more shaped and shaded, more nuanced, and nonetheless appealing for being so. But what makes this Concerto in F different from any other is the care and attention that pianist and conductor pay to the formal structure and unity of the work. The opening is not rendered as an ear-catching clatter, but as the formal introduction to a classical concerto. For once the entrance of the piano seems both consequential and inevitable because it's been so well prepared for.

In the Ravel, Grimaud and Zinman emphasize the variety and humor of the music, its highly contrasted moods and well-timed sense of surprise. Oddly, soloist and conductor permit themselves more brashness and impetuosity here than in the Gerswhin, and in the third movement they capture Ravel's elegant slapstick as well as anyone. Nor are they afraid to stretch out in the more languorous moments, to indulge the sometimes dreamy sensuality of the music. All the great performances of the Ravel G Minor Concerto are inimitable: you wouldn't mistake the courtly elegance of Michealangeli/Gracis for the athletic effervescence of the Argerich/Abbado, or the intensity and concentration of the Zimmerman/Boulez for the bonhomie of Henriot-Schweitzer/Munch. This unruly and volatile performance now joins that select company.

Thus your response to this disc will probably be determined by how open to suggestion you are when it comes to the Gershwin Concerto. For a long time now (and one imagines, for a long time to come), the safest and surest recommendation in this music has been the Earl Wild/Arthur Fiedler/Boston Pops adrenaline rush of a performance. Certainly anyone who loves this work should know, if not own that recording. But if it just so happens, you're looking for an alternative version, you might well want to give Grimaud/Zinman a listen.

Those who do take the plunge will be rewarded by one of the most vivid and detailed concerto recordings I've ever heard. The balance between piano and orchestra is close to ideal, the soundstage spacious and realistic, the bass deep and well defined. Indeed, this is the kind of recording that one saves for the visit of golden-eared friends.

 

 

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Gershwin

Ravel

 

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