Friday, August 27, 2010

Leonard Bernstein's Gershwin

Leonard Bernstein was „one of most prodigally talented and most successful musician in American history”, as Donald Henahan wrote twenty years ago in New York Times obituary. It is natural he made great bunch of époque recordings.  He recorded almost every position from great repertoire of classical and romantic period. Some of this repertoire more than once. Many great works of later composers owe him significant part of their fame. He is vivid part of 20th century music. Both as original composer and as the conductor. Also great pianist and  gifted  lecturer, TV-personality and educating animator. Man of so many talents who has the chance to fulfill his destiny. And as we know from many eye-witness relations, he was even better when off the record, doing music in private for friends, his improvisations and good societal aura were legendary.

Gershwin - Rhapsody in  Blue (1979)

George Gershwin was prodigy but in time he was growing, his talent was like cashiers check. He was new kind of worker, artist who has been producing popular melodies which can be merchandise as any other consuming goods. So he was producing popular songs and dreaming about great music and serious composition. Step by step he was heading towards this aim. Big step forward and the very first serious composition was Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. Gershwin wrote it for two pianos and Ferde Grofé arranged Gershwin's piece for jazz band as ordered by Paul Whiteman. Later this piece has been transcribed  for symphonic orchestra by the same Ferde Grofé. This work made Gershwin famous and rich.  He tried to learn composition. The same 1924 he traveled to Paris where he ask Nadia Boulanger to be her student. The legendary professor of dozens of composers rejected him saying she is afraid to kill most valuable part of his talent. He was trying to learn also from Henry Cowell, Wallingford Rieger and Arnold Schoenberg, but they refused his proposals. So Gershwin bought books on instrumentation and musical forms and learned himself everything he needed. After visit in Paris, he traveled to Vienna where he wrote symphonic poem An American in Paris. This time the orchestra score of this symphonic poem has been readied all by composer himself. It is clear George was learning faster than any student. His later works among many other were Piano concerto in F (1925) and folk opera Porgy an Bess (1935). When he died, aged 39, he was well known around the world as the first composer in American history. In fact he was either first nor unique, but this is not the question about facts. 

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on Hungaroton pressing (1980)

What is Gershwin’s music like when conducted by Bernstein? It’s not enough to say it’s good. This are probably the best interpretations ever! Bernstein’s piano performance is so much syncopated as it can be. One step more and he would lost the character of symphonic work. Both orchestras sound like musicians have jazz in their veins. Two of very few so good symphonic orchestras ever recorded. Columbia Symphony Orchestra in Rhapsody in Blue and New York Philharmonic Orchestra in An American in Paris. Both recordings produced for CBS in 1959 and copyrighted for edition in CBS Masterworks series in 1979. By the way, this is second edition I have, after one bought in Hungaroton license press (the photo of that old cover you can find here too). Absolutely classical rendition!  So the answer for the first question should be divided into two opposite questions. First: how would be Gershwin’s works without Bernstein? Not so well, it’s out of the question. And second: how would be Bernstein’s career without Gershwin? He would be still one of greatest directors in recorded history of music. In fact, we will never know if without Gershwin’s music in the second half of 20th century some jazz inspired compositions would be possible in shape we know. George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess opened a new perspective before American music. One of best effects of this attitude was Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story.

Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1985)

Maybe this note is too much personal. George Gershwin as Bernstein made him. Leonard Bernstein in Gershwin's music only. And everything else between this two great musicians. Today, on August 26th 2010, he would be 92. I am not sure if birthday of an artist should be occasion to think of his work. Great Lennie Bernstein! It is hard to write about him in any other way than as I know him in private. Indeed I did not. When I was child, my father pointed him as one of greatest artists of our times. And as a child I was not so sure about it. Great artists usually are like pieces of bronze, I thought. They do not smile to the public, they are not speaking to children and even not trying to show that serious music is not so serious as we like to believe. Especially, great artists tend not to show how simple it is to be an artist. Now I am smiling when I think, how unhappy were those counting to be future bronze monuments when hearing Bernstein's CBS programs. Maybe that was the reason he had addressed his best lectures about music to children. I feel I am one of them - even if my generation was more than decade later - and maybe this is why I can't write about him any other way than this.

No comments:

Post a Comment