Stefano Bollani / Riccardo Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; Piano Concerto in F

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Among the hundreds or thousands of recordings of Gershwin favorites on the market, it's difficult to stand out. But this big-budget European release manages to do it. Even if it's not uniformly successful, there's a feeling of appreciation for Gershwin's music here that has merit on its own. Instead of trying to blend the classical and jazz elements in Gershwin, conductor Riccardo Chailly takes the novel approach of pushing each of them to extremes and, in various ways, keeping them separate. He generally -- most noticeably in the Piano Concerto in F -- scales back the freedom of tempo that's usual in Gershwin. Working with not just an established European orchestra but the granddaddy of them all, the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Chailly, seems to generate rapport with the musicians, perhaps because they're not forced to move too far out of their rhythmic comfort zone. Yet these aren't carefully controlled, non-jazzy readings of the sort one sometimes hears from Europe, and, for that matter, the U.S. For all Gershwin's jazz roots, the Rhapsody in Blue has not commonly been recorded by jazz pianists in its original form (although they've certainly used the work as a stimulus to further creative activity). The presence of Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani, joining Gewandhaus members in the 1924 "jazz band" scoring of the work by Ferde Grofé, results in an excellent, sparse reading of the score that reveals its small details and is intelligently enhanced by a modest amount of improvisation (justifiable in that Gershwin didn't write the piano part down, as he played it, until after the first performance). The Piano Concerto in F also receives a crisp, astringent but crystal-clear interpretation, and Bollani has improvisatory fun with the early Gershwin/Will Donaldson rag Rialto Ripples. On the symphonic suite Catfish Row, drawn on Porgy and Bess, Bollani does not play the orchestral piano part; the reading is all Chailly's, and it lurches oddly between fixed tempos and a bit of swing added to the rhythms; the naturalness of Gershwin's melodies goes missing. On balance, Gershwin fans will want this recording for the fresh Rhapsody in Blue alone.

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