George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, Prelude No. 2; Orquestra Simfňnica de Barcelona, conducted by Ernest Martinez Izquierdo; Michel Camilo, piano

[Telarc SACD-63611]

February 2006


Telarc hybrid CDs are consistently noteworthy for superb sound, but only rarely do they make me wish I had an SACD player so I could squeeze the ultimate nuances of dynamics and ambience from the recording. Even so, Telarc clearly are really on to something with their hybrid layer protocol, recording exclusively in DSD format then converting to PCM. The timbre, dynamics, sound stage and imaging in this recording are nothing short of sensational. The piano sound, which can be particularly appreciated in Prelude No. 2, is among the most realistic I’ve heard.

I remember reading somewhere of a meeting between Gershwin and Ravel. The American expressed a desire to study with the Frenchman and Ravel responded, “Why would you want to risk being a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?” We don’t have Gershwin’s response, but we do have his music, and it is music of genius, of tremendous originality and vitality, music that captured (and helped to create) the essential spirit of New York City in the early years of the 20th Century. And nowhere more so than in the Rhapsody in Blue, ubiquitous and evergreen, just as vital and exciting at the hundred hearing as it was at the first. And a great deal of credit must go to Telarc, who have brought together a superb orchestra and an ideal pianist, Michel Camilo, whose jazz sensibilities and impeccable improvisational skills have created a performance that seems, well, simply perfect.

The Concerto in F was written in 1925, a year after Gershwin’s performance of the Rhapsody in Blue with the Paul Whiteman orchestra. (Gershwin’s original scoring was for piano and jazz band; it was Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofe, who orchestrated it.) Among the musicians present at that historical performance was Walter Damrosch, who commissioned a concerto from Gershwin the very next day. Gershwin, who had no training in music theory, went out and bought books on musical forms and orchestration, and taught himself as he composed.

Glazunov was present at the premiere of the Concerto in F and afterwards, when Gershwin expressed a fervent desire to study orchestration with the Russian, Glazunov insensitively replied in broken English that Gershwin would have to learn theory before he could undertake orchestration. For those of us who know little musical theory, or who know a lot and are able to suspend their analytical mind, the concerto is a stunner, highly original, exciting, haunting, and an amazing achievement for someone who was studying orchestration on the run. Imagine the confidence and courage to undertake such a project!

“Melody is the element,” wrote Paul Hindemith, “in which the personal characteristics of the composer are most clearly and most obviously revealed.” Gershwin’s melodies, in the Concerto, the Rhapsody, in the numerous songs written with his brother Ira, are as gorgeous as they are legion. His early death is one of the great tragedies of music.

Fernando Gonzalez of Jazziz magazine writes in the liner notes, “Like George Gershwin before him, Camilo is an irrepressible New World romantic...his playing [is] open faced, generous, and ambitious, full of energy and brash optimism.” Michel Camilo states, “There’s a certain spontaneity that I wanted to capture in this music. I discussed this with Ernest [Izquierdo] and the orchestra, and we all went after that magic...With music like this, a performer will often ‘play the ink’...but I tried to make it sound like I was improvising by taking some liberties, although I was playing the ink.” Indeed, this is Gershwin as I’ve never heard him, improvisational, vibrant, confident, full of physical joy. An Amazon search turns up 373 recordings of the Rhapsody in Blue, but of the dozen or so versions I’ve heard over the years, none compares with this one. This is a recording that not only delights, but also reminds one of why one got into the audiophile game in the first place. It is an instant classic and touchstone for excellence in sound.

Russell Lichter