Gershwin
Piano Concerto in F
Rhapsody in Blue
Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’
Eight Preludes for Solo Piano
Mark Bebbington (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leon Botstein

Recorded 2 & 3 October 2015 in St John’s, Smith Square, London
CD No: SOMM SOMMCD 260-2
Duration: 85 minutes (with bonus CD)
Reviewed: July 2016

A certain reserve informs these performances and, from Leon Botstein, there is a tendency to slightly drag things or over-emphasise aspects. This account of the Piano Concerto places it as more European than American, and although Mark Bebbington is admirably clear-cut and dynamic in all that he does, the tempos in the outer movements are held-back enough to appear sluggish. This may aid detail – the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays with considerable flair and the recording is splendidly lucid and well-balanced – but there are times when greater spontaneity is needed. George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto is a great piece, its fund of tunes indelible, but is here a little flabby and self-conscious. The music doesn’t leap from the pages as it does say from André Previn (his LSO version) or from Garrick Ohlsson with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. But for their formality, for there is no doubting the musicians’ authority and affection for the music, this could have been a more swinging and niftier account, essential qualities.

Rhapsody in Blue is similarly laid-back (a credit for the clarinettist would have been nice, ditto the trumpeter in the Concerto’s middle movement) and although Ferde Grofé’s orchestral scoring is podgier than his original version for Paul Whiteman’s ensemble, once again the music needs to scintillate more than here. The masterly Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’, a compact gem, has a bit more life if without challenging, for example, Alexis Weissenberg, with Seiji Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic. Bebbington is expressive, although tempos can be listless and Botstein continues to tweak, as if something must be done.

The 17-minute “Bonus CD” finds Bebbington alone and less inhibited for the “first integral recording” of Eight Preludes. In his booklet note, Robert Matthew-Walker explains the background to what might have been twenty-four such pieces from Gershwin, and which are normally represented by the Three of 1927, here placed as five, six and seven. Bebbington plays each of the eight, all enjoyable, with style and feeling.

 

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