An American Celebration: Gershwin, Harbison, Tower, Piston

Glorious Americana in powerful performances

An American Celebration: Gershwin, Harbison, Tower, Piston

What a glorious programme! Gershwin's Piano Concerto, well known (if not quite as much so as his Rhapsody in Blue) and well-loved, cedes to music by two living composers (John Harbison and Joan Tower) and a Symphony by Walter Piston (whose dates place him  as contemporaneous with Gershwin - he was actually born four years before George, but he outlived him considerably, dying in 1976).

This disc is released on the date of this post's publication, November 13. Kevin Cole talks of his passion for the music of George Gershwin, and his journey to it, in this brilliantly engaging, witty video:

What's more, Gershwin's Piano Concerto is heard in a new, spruce edition, the New Critical Edition by Timothy Freeze, based on the composer's own notation and performances. There is a distinct feeling of freshness as myriad details, however small, conspire to bring a feeling of the just-composed to the performance. The final strait of the first movement is hectic in the best, jazz helter-skelter way.

Gershwin: Piano Concerto (i)

A beautiful trumpet solo (I assume Anthony Barrington, who is listed first amongst the trumpets), a magnificently laid-back, even slinky trumpet tune, opens the slow movement while the finale fizzes with unstoppable energy. Here's that slow movement:

Gershwin: Piano Concerto (ii)

... and here's Kevin Cole with the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic (a festival orchestra) under David Alan Miller, taken from a live performance but intended as a promo for this disc (and with information on the other pieces overlaid on the screen):

John Harbison atually wrote a full opera on The Great Gatsby. The piece here, Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for orchestra) predates the full opus, and is written with a delightfully light touch, with a hint of acid in the pallette (there are also some Gatsby Etudes for piano, incidentally). Here's an alternative performance, to enjoy alongside the Naxos:

Harbison: Remembering Gatsby. Baltimore SO / David Zinman
Harbison: Remembering Gatsby. National Orchestral Institute Philarmonic / David Alan Miller

Far more chthonic is Joan Tower's Sequoia, her meditation on these giants of the tree world. It's almost as if the disc has a trajectory that moves from the jazz-meets-Classical form of the Gershwin Concerto, through Harbison's take on a foxtrot and Tower's brilliantly orchestrated, often gritty Nature portrait (brilliantly performed here, a real celebration of the power of Nature, and in a virtuoso performance, to boot) to Piston's Fifth Symphony. I've also included a Spotify link below to Zubin Mehta's 1982 performance with the New York Philharmonic as a bonus at the very end of the article!.

Tower: Sequoia

Walter Piston was known both as a composer and an educator: he wrote a standard textbook on orchestration, and indeed his writing for orchestra is supserbly confident.  While there are elements of Piston's Fifth. Piston taught John Harbison (and Leonard Bernstien, come to that) at Harvard University. The Fifth is a phenomenal work, often beautiful (don't let the fact that some of the techniques are serial - working with successions of notes in a number of mathematically-derived ways - put you off, there is much to love here). The tender woodwind writing in the first movement, the way the strings can seem aspirational all come together to create a fascinating landscape. Here' s the composer conducting the Louisville Orchestra in the first movement:

The relentless tread of the Adagio is awesome in this new Naxos performance. After all that. it is hard to imagine on first listening that the finale will end all high jinx and ebullient spirits, but it does:

Piston: Symphony No. 5, (ii), Adagio

One of the most imaginatively programmed discs of Americana to come my way for some time. Something for everybody, surely, from the jazz roots of the Gershwin and Harbison to the grandur of the Tower and the beauty and confidence of the Piston. , all in remarkably committed performances. A steal at the price!