America's Greatest Composer

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1998.

Who do you think is America's greatest composer: Aaron Copland? Leonard Bernstein? Richard Rogers? Jerome Kern? Irving Berlin? Edward MacDowell? Howard Hanson? Amy Beach? Amy Who? Charles Ives? Someone else?

Without a moment's hesitation, I would choose George Gershwin, and not just because I'm writing this as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. I'd pick GG for three reasons: (1) melody, (2) harmony, and (3) rhythm. Yes, because George Gershwin excelled at all three of the elements which make music music. And in each case he did so in a manner which was truly original and captivating.

"I Got Rhythm" certainly was true of George. And the piece that he wrote with that famous title is a rhythmic haiku. Its basic melody uses only five notes, the rest being all rhythmic variation of those same tones. (The famous theme from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony uses only four notes, the first three being the same, and Ludwig does a lot more to develop them. But then no one would call his work exactly "haiku.") A few other examples of Gershwin's most dynamic rhythms are "Jasbo Brown's Blues" from "Porgy and Bess," "Fascinating Rhythm," and the first and third of his three piano preludes.

Fortunately for the compact disc buyer, these pieces can all be found on a single CD: "George Gershwin's Song Book & other music for solo piano" with Leonard Pennario (Angel CDC-7 47418 2). It's an all-digital recording which has been around for a while now (since 1986), but I like Pennario's performance and, of course, I think the "Song Book" is essential to any Gershwin collection. However, there is one thing that bothers me about this CD: it seems to have been recorded in an empty dance hall just after the drapes were removed for cleaning -- the sound has too much echo.

This CD also has many examples of Gershwin's melody and harmony at their best. "The Man I Love" is an example of both. This piece would be a good candidate for most gorgeous popular song ever written if there wasn't such stiff competition from so many other Gershwin pieces. I adore the way the harmony keeps descending an imaginary staircase under the melody, step by step. Goose-bumps result!

Of course, I wouldn't blame you if you wanted a CD with Gershwin's songs on which the songs are actually sung, as opposed to just being played on the piano. And there are many such CDs to choose from, as you might guess. I have Maureen McGovern's CD (CBS MK 44995), which, I'm afraid I'm not crazy about. It was recorded live, and the nightclub atmosphere is not my cup of tea. But it may be just right for those who like mixed drinks. More seriously, I find her interpretations overdone, overworked and overly sexy. I prefer a less tortured approach, the kind favored by Kiri Te Kanawa in her EMI Classics CD (CDC 47454).

One of my favorite versions of Gershwin's songs is neither performed on the piano or sung. It is the orchestral track from Woody Allen's film "Manhattan." The music was orchestrated and adapted by Tom Pierson and performed, appropriately enough, by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta. This is an analog recording transferred to CD, but the sound is quite acceptable. However, this CBS recording (MK 36020) is old (1979), and may be hard to find. Yet, last time I looked, it was still in print and available... at least in theory. It is well worth tracking down, though I doubt many, if any, would turn up in used record stores!

A relatively more recent CD (1987), one which is all digital and all fun, is the world-premiere recording of the original orchestrations for the overtures to the Gershwin musicals "Girl Crazy," "Of Thee I Sing," "Tip-Toes," "Primrose," and "Oh, Kay!" as well as the suite from the 1937 RKO film "A Damsel in Distress." These overtures consist of one gorgeous Gershwin melody after another. The sound is superb. The original orchestrations have a delightful way of bringing you back to the 1930s. Yet I prefer the "Manhattan" collection for its excellent selection of the best of Gershwin's tunes combined with orchestrations which seem absolutely perfect for the material and romantic performances which are moving without being overblown.

I have emphasized Gershwin's songs, until now, because Gershwin was most prolific in this medium in his tragically short life. In my opinion he turned out more great tunes per try than anyone since Schubert. But another reason for considering Gershwin as this nation's greatest composer is his success in combining jazz, blues and classical music in his long-form compositions "Rhapsody in Blue," "Piano Concerto in F" and "An American in Paris." He did this more skillfully than anyone before or since. You can have all three of Gershwin's orchestral masterpieces on one digitally-recorded CD with André Previn playing the piano and conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. But there are many other fine choices in case you can't find this Philips classic release (412 611-2), which dates from 1984.

Also in 1984, Gershwin's original version of "An American Paris" for two pianos was recorded in a dynamic, exciting performance by France's extraordinary sister duo, Katia and Marielle Labèque (EMI CDC 7 47044 2). This recording, which runs only about 41 minutes, also includes Percy Grainger's "Fantasy on Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' for Two Pianos." It is surprising how well "An American in Paris" works for two pianos, considering how colorful it is in its orchestral version, complete with authentic Parisian taxi horns! Grainger's "Fantasy on 'Porgy and Bess'" is less successful, but is worth hearing and having.

Speaking of "Porgy and Bess," Gershwin lovers will want to have at least the highlights from this score in their CD collections. In my view, not only is this the greatest American opera ever written, there is nothing else that comes even close. You'll find as many gorgeous melodies in this work as you would in the most melodic operas by Puccini and Verdi. I find the story even more moving, judging by the number of tears I shed at the end. I recommend yet another 1984 recording (Philips 412 720-2) which features Simon Estes as both Porgy and Sportin' Life and Roberta Alexander as Bess. The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is led by Leonard Slatkin.

Which Gershwin CDs would you take if you could only take seven to a tropical island paradise? Believe it or not, this usually hypothetical question was a real one for me very recently as my wife and I moved from southern Oregon to Palm Beach, Fla. We had only so much room for CDs in our stationwagon, and the Gershwin CDs I mentioned here are the ones we took.

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