In 1922, fresh from a lengthy American tour, the French composer Darius Milhaud began work on the score for a ballet treating the creation of the world as depicted in African folklore. Milhaud's musical Africa turned out to be represented by the music he heard in Harlem jazz clubs. The resultant composition, "La Creation du monde," if not the first jazz-inspired "classical" piece, was surely the most extensive and least sanitized to that time.
This once-popular work would seem to be staging some sort of comeback in the crossover era--on recordings, at any rate--and it is the centerpiece of "The Jazz Album," in which Simon Rattle leads the London Sinfonietta (Angel 47991, CD).
Included are three additional, substantial jazz-based works: Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," in its spikey original edition, created for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra; Stravinsky's tough, angular "Ebony" Concerto, a 1945 tribute to Woody Herman and Leonard Bernstein's frenetic Prelude, Fugue and Riffs of 1949, also for Herman.
Angel's sometime programming wizards round out the program with a mini-recital of 1920s songs as arranged for the Whiteman Orchestra, e.g., "Sweet Sue," "Makin' Whoopee," "My Blue Heaven." Here, Rattle and the Sinfonietta back a rather fey vocal ensemble calling itself Harvey and the Wallbangers, led by a strained, '20s-style pop crooner sounding rather like a countertenor who has stumbled into the wrong century.
More important, in neither of the two big works does Rattle (or his Gershwin pianist, the usually reliable Peter Donohoe) handle the jazz element--signaled by an easy passing of material from one instrument to another--with the requisite naturalness. The wail and insinuation of jazz are quite simply missing in these blunt performances.
In the pieces for jazz band (as opposed to hybrid jazz-symphonic ensemble) by Stravinsky and Bernstein, however, Rattle and his players (Michael Collins is the powerhouse clarinet soloist) give us all the hard brilliance and crackling syncopation the music calls for.
For corroboration of the shortcomings of "The Jazz Album" one can turn to near-simultaneous releases of its two major components. Also on the Angel label (47845, CD), Leonard Bernstein invests the whole of his jazzy soul (and, presumably, body) in "La Creation du monde," executed with impeccably idiomatic smarminess by members of the French National Orchestra. The remainder of this Milhaud program comprises the aggressively, irresistibly silly "Boeuf sur le toit" and four charming dances from "Saudades do Brasil," all delivered with optimum wit and expertise by Bernstein and his Frenchmen.
There is as well an impressive recent recording of the Gershwin ur -"Rhapsody" (MCA Classics 6216, CD), in which an ensemble from London's Royal Philharmonic is vibrantly led by the young American Andrew Litton, who also serves as piano soloist, in the tradition of Bernstein, Andre Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas. Like them, Litton is able to integrate the music's "classical" and popular elements most effectively.
The MCA disc also offers Litton's lively solo playing of a few (too few) numbers from "The Gershwin Songbook," but the remainder of the program, a bunch of Hershy Kay's glossy Songbook orchestrations, strikes these ears as too much of an expendable thing.
The symphony orchestra version of "Rhapsody in Blue," as well as Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and the Variations on "I Got Rhythm" are available once again in the handsome, large-scale readings by the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler with pianist Earl Wild (RCA Papillon 6519, CD).
But the high point of this collection is the Wild-Fiedler reading of Gershwin's bluesy Piano Concerto in F, a work that gaucherie-spotting critics have pretty well succeeded in keeping from public view. What the present artists hear--and project--in it is some of the most passionate lyricism ever created by an American composer. In all, then, a superb, nearly 70-minute program, its circa 1960 sonics brilliantly resurrected by the RCA engineers--and, at about $10, a spectacular bargain as well.
The subtly demarcated ground between the saccharin and the tart in Gershwin's show tunes when stripped of their lyrics is skillfully maneuvered by John McGlinn, the young New York-based conductor and scholar of the classic American musical, who gives us a dozen Gershwin overtures in their original orchestrations--a job, in fact, entrusted by the composer to Robert Russell Bennett.
Included are such gems as the potpourri curtain-raisers to "Girl Crazy," "Oh, Kay!," and "Of Thee I Sing" and a suite from the 1937 Fred Astaire film "A Damsel in Distress," featuring "A Foggy Day" and "Nice Work if You Can Get It" (Angel 47977, CD).
McGlinn's leadership is ideally agile and dancey, his ensemble--an aggregation of top New York free-lancers masquerading as the New Princess Theatre Orchestra--superbly accomplished.
McGlinn and the same players are at least as much on their mettle in a more difficult assignment, accompanying soprano Kiri Te Kanawa in a program of 15 Gershwin songs (Angel 47454, CD), including "Somebody Loves Me," "Love Walked In," "The Man I Love," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Embraceable You."
One is tempted to credit McGlinn's gently propulsive conducting with making Dame Kiri sound a good deal less grande than she usually does in such light fare. Still, the touch of earthiness that should separate this material from, say, "Rosenkavalier," remains beyond her reach.