Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra / Felix Slatkin

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; An American in Paris; Gould: Latin-American Symphonette

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These are venerable (not just old, but that, too) recordings of crossover American concert music that with this EMI release enter at least their fourth go-round in the marketplace. They were digitally remastered by the Angel label in 1990 from recordings made in the early '60s. The packaging gives a 1967 date for the recordings of the Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris heard here, which would be noteworthy in view of the death of conductor Felix Slatkin (father of Leonard) four years earlier. The sound, even digitally redone, is unimpressive, and the performances of An American in Paris and Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture are straightforward and entirely competent but not too unlike dozens of others. The brief Latin-American Symphonette of Morton Gould at the end of the program is an intriguing period piece. But what sets this mostly Gershwin recording apart is the fine, even extraordinary performance of Rhapsody in Blue at the beginning. Performances of this easily pleasing yet strangely elusive masterwork tend to be dominated by either the pianist or the conductor, but this one is a real meeting of minds and talent between Slatkin and pianist Leonard Pennario, in the early '60s at the peak of his first burst of fame. Perhaps it was because of Slatkin's long association with popular and crossover music (he was one of Frank Sinatra's go-to conductors over the years), or because Rhapsody in Blue was still relatively new as a concert work in America at the time and thus unconstrained by performance conventions, but the entire piece seems to flow spontaneously in a way that reflects the composer's quasi-improvisatory conception of the work, yet impressively coheres. It's a standout among the horde of available versions of Rhapsody in Blue, with all their diverse approaches to the work, and it's worth your money all by itself. If you can download the Rhapsody legally, that's a good bet, too; classical music is generally best appreciated in the full-album format, but this release may be an exception.

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