Here at Classical Explorer, we previously considered a Vox Audiophile Edition (a label that is a subset of Naxos, incidentally) of Mozart conducted by Stanisław Skrowaczewski with the Minnesota Orchestra, and Walter Klien on piano. Now, Gershwin in what are absolutely classic performances by Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis orchestra.
The release meshes well wth a recent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Cadogan Hall, which featured An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue (conducted by Robert Ziegler and with Mark Bebbington on piano for the Rhapsody): see my review. That concert, incidentally, included the Lim Fantasy of Companionship, which Classical Explorer also featured in a post of its own.
Leonard Slatkin is probably best known in the UK via his association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The present recordings date from the mid-1970s and were initially released on the Elite Recordings label; the expert remastering is by Mike Clements and Andrew Walton. A similar compilation appeared on a Mobile Fidelity SACD (UDSACD-4007)
The performance of An American in Paris is one of the finest out there, leaner and yet no less cinematographic than Previn's famous and justifiably classic EMI account with the LSO (YouTube link). The arrival at 13'50 is magnificantly judged in Slatkin’s reading(and listen to the detail one can hear and enjoy of the low brass descent soon after); the orchestral explosion around 11 minutes in is similarly impressive ... and the trumpet slide in the final bars offers a real sense of fun:
Another relevant comparison is the performance headed by Leonard's father Felix Slatkin (with some great paintings of Paris as part of the YouTube video below!). This performance was originally released in 1959 on Capitol Records (ZP 8343), coupled with a Rhapsody in Blue performed by the great (and under-rated) pianist Leonard Pennario. Felix Slatkin's way is bright, breezy and brash, often highly gestural. There 's a superb solo violinist there at the head of the orchestra, too, and a wonderful solo trumpeter, unaftaid of a bit of brass vibrato (the orchestra is the Hollywood Bowl Symphony):
Leonard Slatkin's performance of the delicious Promenade, heard in its version for chamber orchestra, 1937 and featuring the clarinet of George Silfies, links that piece to An American in Paris in its carefree demeanour:
... the two pieces are separated by the 1920 string orchestra version of the beautiful Lullaby.
Nothing, though, can prepare one for the blaze of white light that is the opening of the Cuban Overture:
This is like one glorious curtain-raiser, with simply the most characterful percussion section. The spirit of the rumba lives large in this piece, and if there is some shrillness to the upper strings in the transfer, it is not sufficient to be too off-putting.
Finally, Catfish Row, the Suite from Porgy and Bess. The opening movement, itself named “Catfish Row,” includes “Summertime,” magnificently played here by solo violin (the leader of the St Louis orchestra):
The second movement, “Porgy Sings” begins with “I got plenty o' nottin‘” and features the banjo of David Mortland; and just listen to the slinky strings later on for “Bess, you is my woman now”:
The finest movement, to my ears, is the central Fugue - Slatkin brings a voltage to this that is surely withour peer:
Slatkin’ players track the graphic portratal of adverse weather in “Hurricane” perfectly. This is far from a relentless movement - we hear the storm gather before it scurries, then blazes, into action:
The final “Good morning, Sistuh,” a wide-ranging movement of, often, great bonhomie, and certainly the perfect way to close this most enervating of discs.
A fine collection of Gershwiniana - you'll love it as much for the pieces you don't know than for the famous bits! And Slatkin and his St Louis players are on fire ...