Saturday, January 19, 2013


Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Levant Plays Gershwin. I'm used to hearing Gershwin's concert works as fancy-dress jazz, and to implicitly condescend to them as such--or at least, this is how I was conditioned to hear them after I'd first fallen for them without reservation. This was crossover "pops" pabulum by a Broadway baby, some nice tunes spackled together with difficult-sounding piano cadenzas. But I was pleasantly surprised upon revisiting "Rhapsody in Blue" and the Concerto in F to hear chiefly their imaginative ambition and spiky integrity as 20th-century concert music in a vein I've since explored more fully. I'm talking about the questing jazz/folk hybrids of Ravel, Falla, Milhaud, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Copland, Bartok, Weill, Hindemith, Ives--music united by a kind of experimental populism, or a populist experimentalism, and aimed as much beyond the concert hall as at it.

For one, there is a lot more dissonance than I recall from casual listening, and it's not just cosmetic but deeply ingrained in the works' harmonic logic; if there's any grain of truth to some of the snobbery about this work, it is in the way sweet melodies sometimes do sound airlifted in, laid over the thorny harmonies like a tarp. This being Gershwin, though, those melodies are genuinely sweet, not synthetic, and the harmonies remain interesting; if he doesn't always reconcile the two convincingly, I can live with that.

Also, for the first time I heard Spain in some of the dashing melodies, modal scales, and step-wise chord progressions--or at least, the early 20th-century French version of Spain, a half-remembered/half-created sound world partly creditable to the half-Basque Ravel (and acknowledged and embraced by an actual Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, for what it's worth). I heard it clearly in the opening motif of "Rhapsody," in a good deal of the coolly glowering/towering Concerto, and even in the openly Francophile "An American in Paris." (A note on the recording: I grew up with a collection that included these three works, with a hot redhead on the cover, and that's accordingly the record I revisited; but if you go to Amazon, a new edition of "Levant Plays Gershwin" adds some other piano pieces but subtracts "Paris," which, to be fair, has no piano, and hence no Levant, in it at all.)

I don't mean to claim that dissonance + Spain = serious music, that these associations "prove" these works' pedigree. They have nothing to prove anymore, least of all to me. It's just nice with this revisit to situate them in a pantheon I've since formed, and which perhaps unconsciously was even formed around them, due to them. This is also partly true to history, since Ravel's great jazz-and-Spain piano concerti followed Gershwin's, not the other way around.
Cristofer Gross Thanks for this. Years ago I had a close friend who was old enough to have been a close friend of both George and Oscar. According to him, Levant was Gershwin's favorite pianist. (And my friend was a pianist himself, having – according to him – been the first to perform a solo-piano version of Rhapsody in Paris.)

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