"George Gershwin (1898-1937) first made a name for himself as the composer of one memorable popular song after another--songs that have proven remarkably durable and have entered our collective consciousness to become "great standards" by which others are judged. In 1924 he began to leap the gulf between "popular" and "serious" music, and between 1924 and his untimely death in 1937 he created a number of famous works--but although he is regarded as a genius today, it was not so at the time. For then as now, "serious" composers and critics were an insular group, and many considered his fusion of jazz, strong melodic lines, and symphonic treatments at best pretentious, at worst common.In the wake of Gershwin's untimely death, many of his works underwent a facelift of sorts, with various composers reworking the material in an effort to give it more snob appeal: the original arrangements were touched up, retoned, and in general fiddled with--and today it is almost impossible to find a recording of a Gershwin piece recorded as originally written. But here Chicago Symphony conductor James Levine accomplishes the impossible, restoring four major Gershwin pieces to either original or near-original condition.The great reason to purchase this CD is "Rhapsody in Blue," which will come as a revelation to listeners accustomed to hearing the piece awash in strings, for here it is returned to all the sharp edged, strident, and jazzy glory of the original 1924 Ferde Grafe arrangement for the Paul Whiteman orchestra. And it is stunning, clean, a true period jewel that is ultimately the definitive musical statement of the Deco era; hearing it performed in this stripped-down original version is akin to seeing a beautiful gemstone purged of a vulgar setting and restored to true brilliance.Also notable are "Cuban Overture" and "Catfish Row," both of which are performed essentially as Gershwin created them. "Cuban Overture" has never been one of Gershwin's most popular concert pieces--but listening to it here one is hard pressed to know why; certainly less melodic than other Gershwin constructions for orchestra, it is nonetheless a magical thing that combines a sense of ocean and tropical flavors to tremendous effect. "Catfish Row," of course, is drawn from Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess"--but should not be confused with the various suites typically heard, for it was actually arranged by George Gershwin himself and offers a pleasing (and to my mind far superior) variation on these oft-heard themes.Unfortunately, not all of the original arrangements survive. (Liner notes indicate that even "Cuban Overture" is slightly effected in this regard.) The arrangements for "An American in Paris" received an overhaul around 1947; the originals have been lost forever, and it is performed here very much as we are accustomed to hearing it. Still, Levine and company give it tremendous style and substance in execution, and without knowing what the original arrangements were like we would be hard pressed to fault them in the performance.Whatever the case, when it comes to these four selections, and particularly so re the legendary "Rhapsody in Blue," this is the recording to have. Everything here is flawless--and very often unlike anything you've previously heard when approaching these works. Strongly recommended.GFT, Amazon Reviewer"
A well-played and fun recording
Jeffrey Grubin | Newington, CT United States | 05/10/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I can't believe that nobody's reviewed this album until now. I've had this for about 4 or 5 years now. Anyway, I listened to this a few days ago, and my opinion still hasn't changed. Chicago is simply one of the world's best orchestras. I have performed American in Paris (as a trombone player) and I wish I could have played it 1/10th as well as these guys. It is definitely the best American in Paris I have ever heard, and the same could be said for Rhapsody in Blue. The Rhapsody in Blue is the jazz band version, which means that it has been rescored for a smaller orchestra while maintaining the heavy brass sonorities. Also, I must say that James Levine is great, and I enjoy almost anything he conducts. This is an exciting, fun CD and I would urge anyone who doesn't have it to pick it up right away."
Outstanding performance and sound engineering
Classicalfan | Reston, VA USA | 10/23/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am not a sound engineer but, clearly something was done outstandingly right in the production of this CD. I have listened to this CD on several different stereo systems with the same result: crystal clear sound that gives the impression that the instruments are right in front of you. I would add that I do not have an SACD version of this CD, nor an SACD player, nor a hi-end expensive stereo system. Nevertheless, the sound quality of this CD was noticeably superior to that of the recordings of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris that I have with Bernstein and Ormandy conducting. Part of the superior sound quality of this recording is due to its being digital, whereas Bernstein and Ormandy were recorded in analog. However, I have hundreds of other CDs that were recorded digitally and comparatively few have a sound quality that is as fresh, sharp, and, simply put, as outstanding as the one on this CD.
In addition to the freshness and immediacy of the sound, the playing of both the orchestra and of Levine as the piano soloist in Rhapsody in Blue are the best that I have heard amongst my various recordings of this work. I had never heard James Levine as a pianist before, only as a conductor, and was very pleasantly surprised at the excellence of his performance. There is a real joyful dynamic energy on this CD, together with a quality that is not apparent on the other recordings I own of Rhapsody in Blue - a feeling of playfulness, and even humor. I got the distinct feeling as I listened to this CD (several times, and always with great pleasure) that the orchestra and conductor/pianist were thoroughly enjoying themselves. All of the selections on this CD radiate with outstanding musicianship coupled with tremendous energy and love of life. This is one of my desert island CDs. I give it my highest recommendation."
Gershewin is the Master of Mixing Jazz and Big Band
Robert Pollock | Durham, NC USA | 12/26/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Gershwin lived a short life but the pieces he made are marvelous. His fusion of jazz of big band creates a unique sound that is very pleasing. Listening to a Rhapsody in Blue, or An American in Paris always gives the feeling of a big bustling American city in its prime, full of rich color and glamour. Uneven, busy syncopated rythyms by the brass and percussion add the sense of the workaholic society of America during its time. It's the old timely sound to it all that makes Gershwin's so songs irresistable to the ear. Cuban Overture sounds equally robust and majestic, complete with native Cuban percussion, and the "Porgy and Bess" Suite, while operatic and huge in proportion, doesn't stray far from its jazz roots. The Chicago Symphony played the music with gusto and vigor, and James Levine thoughtfully interpreted each piece with the utmost care the way Gershwin had intended it. I highly recommend this piece to anyone with a fine taste in the big band, all-American sound. Of all the music I've heard, Gershwin's music sounds the most American of them all."
Octavio Padron | Astoria, New York United States | 09/09/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"To hear Rhapsody in Blue without strings is absolutely breathtaking. James Levine did an excellent arrangement of the Gershwin score. It sounds true to its jazz roots. As Gershwin probably intended. Porgy and Bess is also close to its American roots. Overall, and excellent display of modern-day recording. And the great conductor, James Levine in absolute magnificent form."