Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rhapsody in Blue

Every so often a certain recording or performance catches me off guard, inexplicably and sometimes very inappropriately unleashing all that emotion that otherwise successfully hides under cynical or sarcastic remarks. Last time that happened with Ella Fitzgerald's live recording of Cottontail as I was walking across some parking lot in Waterloo -- and this morning, as I was driving to work, out of the blue on CBC2 they played a very curious recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue -- which, I'm afraid, did it again. It was Michael Tilson Thomas' 1976 recording with the Columbia Jazz Band where the piano part was played by no other than George Gershwin himself, by the means of a piano roll that he recorded in 1925; a performance with a rather different feel from a more popular symphonic arrangement of which the most popular recording is by Leonard Bernstein. Now, I like Bernstein's performance a lot, although for instance the person who requested the non-Bernstein performance on CBC2 this morning apparently thinks that it's way too academic or classical-sounding. In my opinion, Bernstein's recording (which is played at a slower tempo) is beautifully nuanced and makes a point of lingering on all the beautiful harmonies and poignant intonations that Gershwin put in there -- a little bit reminiscent of all these heart-wrenching eastern-european motives in Brahms'
Hungarian Dances or a good deal of Chopin's nocturnes and ballads. For someone who is used to the Bernstein's version, the Columbia recording feels a bit rushed, but that's until you hear the piano part, which is spontaneous and full of life -- and, of course, since it is Gershwin playing, it is as authentic as it gets (second only, perhaps, to the '24 and '27 original recordings).

Which brings me to the thought of the magic that re-performance technology makes available to us, from the more primitive piano rolls to the complicated processes that Zenph Studios recently used on their re-performances of Glenn Gould and Art Tatum's recordings. The good old music notation that lends itself to interpretation of an individual performer is great for other reasons; there is, however, something deeply thrilling about being able to experience the genius of Gershwin, Gould or Tatum first-hand, as if they were playing this in front of you.

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