BBC NOW’s Enterprising Concert Reveals Classical Aspects of Gershwin and Ellington

13/12/2015

Gershwin, Ellington: Joseph Moog (piano), Tommy Smith (tenor saxophone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 11.12.2015. (PCG)

EllingtonThree Black Kings (1974)

Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F (1925)

Gershwin – Variations on I got rhythm (1934)

Ellington/StrayhornThe Nutcracker Suite (1960) 

This enterprising programme, broadcast live on Radio 3, presented works by two American composers from the ‘popular’ or ‘jazz’ spectrum who both aspired to the writing of music with a more ‘classical’ sensibility. Gershwin, who even went to the extent of seeking composition lessons with Ravel (whose two piano concertos both betray jazz influences) and Stravinsky, probably went further with his expeditions into opera culminating in Porgy and Bess and might well have taken up the mantle afterwards assumed by Aaron Copland had it not been for his early death. Duke Ellington, whose orchestral works The river and Harlem have attracted the more recent attention of Neeme Järvi in his recordings on Chandos of American music, generally remained more faithful to his jazz roots but his expeditions into the ‘classical’ field still show a real sensitivity to harmony and orchestration which roam some way from traditional models.

Joseph Moog was an excellent soloist in the two works for piano and orchestra that Gershwin himself orchestrated (the instrumentation of the earlier rhapsodies was the work of Ferde Grofé). Peter Reynolds in his as ever informative programme notes informed us that Gershwin had purchased “four or five books on musical structure” before commencing work on his Piano Concerto, although it has to be admitted that the first movement in particular shows little advance on his earlier pieces, stringing memorable tunes together without much real sense of symphonic unity. Interestingly Thomas Søndergård seemed concerned to try and obviate the joins, beginning the percussion attacks at the beginning rather less overtly in-your-face than some but then building inexorably towards the entry of the soloist. However later on this involved a reluctance at times to linger by the wayside, to simply enjoy the full richness of Gershwin’s melodic invention. Simon Gardner’s trumpet solo at the start of the slow movement was very jazzy indeed, woozy and sleazy by turns in a manner that my jazz-loving companion defined with approval as “deep down and dirty.” The frenzied delivery of the finale showed clearly Gershwin’s admiration for Stravinsky – The Firebird clearly lurking in the wings – and the sheer exhilaration of the playing brought cheering from the capacity audience. After this Moog played an encore in the shape of his own arrangement of Gershwin’s Wonderful, a real tour de force; and one must thank the soloist for making sure that he announced what he was playing to his listeners beforehand.

The performance of the variations after the interval showed how far Gershwin had progressed since his concerto nearly ten years before. The use of variation technique of course obviated the problems of coping with symphonic form; but the composer had also refined his orchestral writing in the intervening years, and Robert Plane clearly enjoyed his opening announcement of the theme before the piano entry. Moog was again a superlative soloist, and the sheer adventurousness of Gershwin’s style (this was his last orchestral work) again leaves one to speculate on where he might have gone had he survived.

The two works by Duke Ellington which began and ended the programme were more problematic. Ellington disliked Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, describing it unkindly as “black on stage, white everywhere else”, and his own music stayed very much truer to its roots. That is apparent even in his final work Three Black Kings, left incomplete at his death and completed (according to his deathbed instructions) by his son Mercer. The orchestral version heard here is credited to Maurice Peress. The opening movement describing the ‘black king’ Balthasar of the Magi, with its insistently repeated vibraphone figuration, almost anticipated the later developments of minimalism; and elsewhere there were suggestions of Hollywood biblical epics interrupted by virtuoso displays on the tenor saxophone by Tommy Smith. The second  movement portrayed King Solomon (was he really ‘black’?) as something of a lounge lizard with ‘down and dirty’ oboe and saxophone solos; Ellington then presented us with a series of very twentieth century dance movements, so clearly dramatic verisimilitude was not intended – we were a very long way indeed from Bloch’s Schelomo here. The final movement, a eulogy for Martin Luther King, was surprisingly upbeat in mood over a walking pizzicato bass line; but it built up quite a head of steam even when the resulting volume meant that the clearly hard-working tenor saxophone soloist was reduced to virtual inaudibility (this may have been corrected by the radio microphones for the broadcast). As an encore Tommy Smith gave us Ellington’s solo piece Single petal of a rose, but it has to be said that this display vehicle ranging over the whole compass of the tenor saxophone did not allow for much in the way of melodic involvement. And it would have been nice if we had been told in advance what we were listening to.

The final work on the programme was advertised as the nine-movement Nutcracker Suite, a jazz re-interpretation of Tchaikovsky prepared by Ellington in collaboration with Billy Strayhorn. In a spoken introduction Tommy Smith lamented the fact that Strayhorn, handicapped in mid-twentieth-century America by being both black and homosexual, had never really had a chance to explore his wish to be successful in classical music. But I have to say that the Nutcracker Suite, written for a Christmas album in 1960, never struck me as much more than a commercially driven venture. This may be unfair; in the event we only heard the first five movements of the suite, since the earlier encores meant that the concert was clearly over-running its allotted broadcast schedule. But what we did hear seriously lacked variety; and variety is after all one of the keynotes of Tchaikovsky’s original. Also a feature of the original orchestration is Tchaikovsky’s employment of a wide variety of then relatively unusual percussion instruments; here the orchestral percussion was jettisoned totally in favour of a drum kit which pounded its incessant way through every movement. The result, in Sugar Rum Cherry, with the solo celesta imitated very unconvincingly on a clarinet trio, was weird in the extreme. It has to be said that the players clearly enjoyed themselves immensely in their solo ‘spots’ – not only Tommy Smith on saxophone, but Robert Plane on clarinet, Simon Gardner on trumpet, and Donal Bannister on trombone – and my aforementioned companion thought the whole enterprise a marvellous example of ‘big band jazz’, but I’m afraid it left me cold. Mind you, I seem to have been in a decided minority; the audience, once they had recovered from the sudden truncation of the performance, applauded enthusiastically. Possibly the addition of the missing movements (which included the Russian, Chinese and Arabian dances) might have served to provide the variety that I missed – and that Tchaikovsky’s original so abundantly supplies. Those interested in the matter may like to sample the relay of the concert on the BBC i-player.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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