George Gershwin

George Gershwin [Box Set]

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In Europe, all recordings more than 50 years old are in the public domain, which may help explain how it's possible to release a collection like this 115-track, eight-CD German box set with a running time over six-and-a-half hours. But how is it possible to assemble? The material here clearly is drawn from secondary sources, transferred from old 78s and other film and radio recordings. As a result, the sound quality varies wildly from a level comparable to regular releases (especially the tracks that date from the 1940s) to scratchy and muffled recordings. Roughly, the discs fall into three categories: The first two contain performances by George Gershwin himself and are drawn largely from 1930s radio appearances; the third, fourth, and fifth contain soundtrack recordings; and the sixth, seventh, and eighth contain mostly studio recordings by various popular entertainers of the '20s, '30s, and '40s. The first two discs are the most illuminating, even if the sound quality is at its worst. There are three radio shows: the first a 1932 excerpt from Rudy Vallée's Fleischmann Hour and the other two episodes from Gershwin's own Music by Gershwin series, complete with laxative commercials. Here Gershwin proves an engaging personality, good at explaining (even if his remarks are clearly scripted) and playing his music. The final five tracks on the disc present a rehearsal performance of music from Porgy and Bess done nearly three months before the opera's premiere and featuring principals Abbie Mitchell, Edward Matthews, Ruby Elzy, Todd Duncan, and Anne Brown. This historical material is invaluable. The second disc is the only one to present much of Gershwin's classical work; in recordings made between 1927 and 1931, he plays "Rhapsody in Blue" (with Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra, which premiered it) and "An American in Paris," among other works.

Discs three, four, and five are subtitled "Gershwin on Screen." They contain performances taken directly from the soundtracks of films containing Gershwin's music: the first, little-known Girl Crazy (1932); the better-known second Girl Crazy (1943); the Gershwin film biography Rhapsody in Blue (1945); Shall We Dance (1937); Damsel in Distress (1937); The Goldwyn Follies (1938); the Artie Shaw short Symphony in Swing (1938); Strike Up the Band (1940); Broadway Rhythm (1944); Ziegfeld Follies (1946); and The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947). These films range from ones for which Gershwin wrote original scores (Shall We Dance) to adaptations of his Broadway shows made after his death (the second Girl Crazy) to films containing material cobbled together posthumously (The Shocking Miss Pilgrim). But many of the composer's best-known songs are included, performed by a bevy of Hollywood stars including June Allyson, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Betty Grable, Dick Haymes, Lena Horne, Al Jolson, Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant, Ginger Rogers, and Mickey Rooney. And the selections are not restricted to songs actually heard in the films. For example, Ziegfeld Follies, an anthology, was made over a number of years, and many sequences were not included in the final print, among them Avon Long's performance of Gershwin's "Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)," but that track is included here. The final three discs, which go in rough chronological order, trace Gershwin's theater music through popular recordings made between 1922 and 1947. In some cases, the artists on the tracks are those who performed the songs originally onstage, such as Cliff Edwards, who sang and played "Fascinating Rhythm" in Lady, Be Good, and Gertrude Lawrence, who introduced "Someone to Watch Over Me" in Oh, Kay! But for the most part, they are popular recording artists of the day, which in the '20s means Whiteman, Fred Waring, and Ben Selvin leading their society dance orchestras, and in the '30s the likes of Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters. The third and final disc of this group, subtitled "Great Songs Presented by Great Stars," might just as well have been called the jazz disc, since it presents swing performances by Benny Goodman, Harry James, and Tommy Dorsey, as well as singers like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, concluding with a 1947 version of "Embraceable You" by the Charlie Parker Quintet featuring Miles Davis and Max Roach.

Clearly, this George Gershwin box set contains many valuable recordings of Gershwin's music. It is also an unwieldy and poorly organized album, however. There is a 40-page booklet, given over entirely to a biography of Gershwin that appears to have been either translated from another language or written by someone whose native language is not English, since it is filled with grammatical mistakes as well as odd and awkward phrasing. (Blue Monday, for example, is described as "a one act opera from the world of the American coloureds.") Almost no reference is made in it to the contents of the box set. The notes have no byline. Though it is roughly divided up into the three sections noted, the set's organization has a repetitious, thrown-together feel. (Indeed, Gershwin's performance of the overture from Of Thee I Sing, featured on one of the Music by Gershwin shows on the first disc, turns up again on the seventh disc.) The main thing the collection has going for it is bulk, but it is also a good example of the kind of miscellany made possible by copyright lapses.

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