Rhapsody in Blue

As a classically trained pianist, I drifted into jazz under the influence of a wonderful teacher, Diana Allen, who played with Glenn Miller and many of the best swing orchestras in the 1950s. She taught me to love jazz. And ragtime, and swing. The closest I ever got to professional performance of a major work was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which carpal tunnel ultimately kept me from. But I went through the score and the recorded works like nothing I’d done before.

I’m revisiting it now as I’m thinning out my LP collection and listened to a recording of Slatkin doing Catfish Row (one of the only available versions on vinyl) that I ultimately found disappointing. I knew there was another one — and digging through the iPod found the James Levine DGG chamber version, which has not only a fantastic Catfish, but the best Rhapsody on record. It is the “jazz band” version, not the overblown Ferde Grofe re-orchestration popularized by Bernstein in his famed CBS version. Why not let us hear those saxophones, like the composer intended? Likewise Previn’s sonically gorgeous EMI recording with the LSO, which I am revisiting on 45rpm special issue. It’s too smooth (and no saxes). But maybe that’s my bias speaking, as a ragtimer.

What Levine ultimately gets right is not just the saxes, but the jazzy tone. Or, to put it better, the half-jazzy tone. Gershwin was living in the musical middle world of Scott Joplin, my favorite American composer. Like Joplin, Gershwin was not quite trying to write jazz in the classical idiom…or classical in the jazz idiom. He was splitting the difference, as do all great musical innovators. Haydn/Mozart, by example. Or the variations of Brahms on Haydn, which I’ve blogged about here before. Or Vaughan Williams on Tallis.

But back to Gershwin. Like Joplin, he can be played like he is a modern American Grieg or Liszt. This is too much what Lenny does, as dramatic and sonically super it all is. Or Previn, to a lesser degree of Romantic pretension. Gershwin is not Grieg or Liszt. He wants to swing just as Joplin wanted to dance the cakewalk. So I say no to Joshua Rifkin playing Joplin like he is Bach; but also to Dick Hyman playing him as though he is on the hurdy-gurdy. There is a middle way. It is distinctly American.

Levine’s Gershwin finds this. There is a jazzy flutter to the rhythm, but a dramatic structure to the pianism. Those trombones come in with ruffle, but also with precision. It’s jazzy, and it swings. But it is still a consistent, disciplined thing, a Classical work in that very traditional sense. And he nails the iconic finale in a discrete, and swinging way that puts the big-band versions to shame.

Yet, every note was down on the page; this was not improvisational jazz. It was, in its own way, classical music…or a half-breed of these two.

It reminds us that even the great Duke Ellington wrote out his solos note-by-note for his soloists. And Joplin, the American Schumann…though not entirely…the categories are complicated. This is an American idiom, and Levine nails it more than anyone on record, at least in the Rhapsody. I’d be infinitely curiously to hear him perform some solo Gershwin tunes, as Previn has to great effect. As he reaches his retirement, let’s commend Maestro Levine for getting Gershwin right.

About Jonathan Riehl

Jonathan Riehl writes and teaches communications, rhetoric, and American politics. He used to be a Republican. View all posts by Jonathan Riehl

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