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Positive Feedback ISSUE 69
september/october 2013


Gershwin: An American in Paris
by Stephen Francis Vasta


Rhapsody in Blue. RAVEL: Bolero; Pavane pour une infante défunte. DEBUSSY: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Christopher O'Riley, piano (in Rhapsody); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth. Royal Philharmonic Collection 2805. TT: 65:19.

Downloads: (all tracks); (Pavane and Prélude only); (An American in Paris only)

Following Naxos's successful launching of its series of newly recorded, low-priced classical CDs, Intercord attempted to claim a share of that market for itself. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra—a variable but more polished ensemble than many of the provincial groups fielded by Naxos—recorded large swatches of the standard orchestral repertoire, and some of its personnel were featured in chamber music; there were also a few piano solo programs. The series eventually took in some eighty discs' worth of music, issued in the U.K. on the Tring label, and in the U.S.—despite the piano recitals—as the "Royal Philharmonic Collection."

This particular entry didn't look promising. Barry Wordsworth hadn't struck me as one of the series' stronger conductors:  an alert Beethoven Seventh was undercut by a careless Beethoven First (on the same disc!) and a slapdash Scheherazade. Nor do British musicians always sound at home in Gershwin's lively rhythms.

In the event, his Gershwin proves a pleasant surprise. An American in Paris steps smartly at first—though the car horns tend to push ahead on each appearance—while Wordsworth lays out the lyrical second theme at 3:25, and later such ruminative episodes—with just the right sense of space. The subtle but clear accenting of the cross-rhythms at 5:03 provides some lift. The performance's British roots only begin to show later: the players sit heavily on the syncopations beginning at 11:18—rendering the passage through the following climax a bit staid -- and the trumpet solo at 13:02 begins extremely carefully. Still, the reading convinces.

The Rhapsody, beginning with a down-and-dirty clarinet solo—lots of added portamentos—is even better. The American pianist Christopher O'Riley finds and brings out irregular interior groupings within the flourishes, making for lively rhythmic interest. He launches the repeated-note figure beginning at 14:31 slowly and works into tempo, underlining a lilting rumbalike swing, lost in the rat-a-tat virtuosity of the usual reading. Wordsworth's handling of tuttis is "big," symphonic rather than lithe, but provides a strong framework for O'Riley's full-bodied, quasi-improvisatory playing.

The French scores are less consistently successful, though both of the Ravel pieces have their moments. In Wordsworth's lively Bolero, the wind soloists play with character and ripe colour; slithery portamentos give the soprano saxophone solo a snake-charmer feel. The big horn solo is a bit raw and choppy, but not nearly as much so as on Ozawa's unlamented DG version. Wordsworth not only brings out the faux-organ effect in the trio for horn and two piccolos at 5:53—which some conductors try to hide—but elicits a similar effect in the big wind entries later, an effect perhaps inadvertently enhanced by mild tuning imprecision's. The chord at 12:46, at the brief move to E major, is blatantly sour.

A nervous, befuddled principal horn mars the opening of the Pavane, pushing the exposed solo ahead nervously, then so late at 0:32 that the horn almost attacks with the answering chords! Beginning with the "B" section, however, the playing is gorgeous, with limpid woodwinds coloring the pliant harmonies. Wordsworth doesn't quite catch the end of the opening flute solo of Debussy's Faune, which generally sounds nervous, with microseconds shaved off rather a lot of beats.

It's a tough call, though you might want to give O'Riley's take on the Rhapsody a listen. Note, however, that only Hello DJ, of the various sites I checked, offers the entire album for download.

Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.