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Recommended Gershwin Recordings

This discography is provided as an accompaniment to the feature: Who Could Ask for Anything More?: A Hundred Years of George Gershwin. Many of these recordings are available from the Public Radio MusicSource .

Concert Hall Works | Songs and Piano Music | Porgy and Bess
The Broadway Shows | Gershwin by Gershwin

THE FIRST MUSICIAN TO RECORD Gershwin's music was Gershwin himself: In 1916, the 18-year-old George made a piano roll of his song, "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em."

Since then, Gershwin recordings have issued forth steadily, performed by everyone from Otto Klemperer to Seinfeld's Jason Alexander. What follows is a highly selective list of basic recordings, with a leaning toward Gershwin's classical output - plus a few extras.

Concert Hall Works: Rhapsody in Blue; Concerto in F; An American in Paris

These are the three works on which Gershwin's fame in the concert hall rests. The classic name here is Leonard Bernstein, with his characteristic energy and spontaneity. These performances have been issued many times, e.g.: on Sony 63086.

Bernstein didn't record the concerto, though, so for all three pieces on one disc (plus the I Got Rhythm Variations), go for another great advocate of Gershwin, Earl Wild (RCA 6519.)

The Rhapsody in Blue is a special case. It was always known that the standard version for symphony orchestra had been preceded by an arrangement for Paul Whiteman's jazz band. But it wasn't till the 1970s that musicians started researching what that original version might have sounded like, and bringing it to life in performances.

Which one is the "true" Gershwin? Well, both. But the jazz version, with its snappy tempos and saxes instead of violins, makes the old Rhapsody sound like a whole new piece. You can even get this version with Gershwin as the piano soloist, thanks to some technical hocus-pocus with piano rolls (with Michael Tilson Thomas; CBS 42240.)

There are other concert pieces besides the big three, and the Cincinnati Pops has a two-disc set with all the Gershwin orchestral music, including little bits like "Walking the Dog" and "Mexican Dance." ("Gershwin: The Complete Orchestral Collection"; Telarc 80445).

A unique specialty item is a recreating of the famous concert that included the Rhapsody's world premiere; but be aware that that Rhapsody is the lone Gershwin piece. The rest of the program ranges from "Yes, We Have No Bananas" to Elgar, all played by jazz band. ("The Birth of the 'Rhapsody in Blue'"; MusicMasters 60113; two discs.)

Songs and Piano Music

This list inclines toward the classical side of the spectrum, so we'll bypass marvelous singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Fred Astaire for mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, and her husband, pianist William Bolcom. No one has done more than this team to win over classical-music fans to the delights of Gershwin, Kern, and Berlin.

Their disc is called "Piano Music and Songs" - a fair billing, since it also includes Bolcom as the brilliant soloist in virtually all of Gershwin's solo piano music. (Nonesuch 79151).

Porgy and Bess

If you only know Porgy and Bess from its marvelous songs, you may be surprised to find that it isn't an ambitious Broadway show, but an honest-to-goodness opera. (One of Gershwin's models, of all things, was Wagner's Die Meistersinger.)

Of the recordings of Porgy - and they all bring keen pleasure - one stands out: the Houston Grand Opera production with Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale (BMG/RCA RCD 3-2109).

The Broadway Shows

All the while he was composing his classical works, Gershwin worked steadily on Broadway musical comedies. These shows - profitable hits in their day - haven't exhibited the staying power of a Show Boat or Carousel, but a series of recreations on the Nonesuch label (again) lets us imagine what the excitement was about. (For example, Lady, Be Good; the cast includes Jason Alexander; Nonesuch 79308). The most durable of them, Of Thee I Sing, is the light-hearted tale of a president and his problems (CBS M2K 42522; two discs.)

Gershwin by Gershwin (and Others)

There's no reason that Gershwin, living when he did, couldn't have gone into the recording studio as often as a Bing Crosby or Bessie Smith. But he chose not to - making the recordings that he did make all the more intriguing - monaural sound, background hiss, and all.

A two-disc set on Pearl includes all of Gershwin's commercial recordings: two different renditions of Rhapsody in Blue, pop songs, and other material recorded with supervision from Gershwin (Pearl 9483).

Even more fascinating is a disc called "Gershwin Performs Gershwin," with material from Gershwin's radio series (including Feen-a-mint commercials), and songs from Porgy and Bess. These Porgy performances were arranged and paid for by Gershwin, before the world premiere, to test the orchestration -- so what you hear on this disc is what Gershwin was hearing himself for the very first time. (MusicMasters 5062).

To conclude, if your love for Gershwin is really here to stay, you can get the memorial concert broadcast from the Hollywood Bowl in 1938. The performers range from Otto Klemperer to Al Jolson, to the opera star Lily Pons to the first Porgy, Todd Duncan: disparate strands of cultural life brought together by Gershwin's death, as he brought them together in his work. (Complete on two discs on North American Classics 4001; an abridged version on one disc is on Enterprise 9.)

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