Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Gershwin Second Rhapsody, An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue; Julian Jacobson, Mariko Brown; SOMM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★) on his website https://www.planethugill.com/2022/02/mm.html
Classic American pieces that cross over between jazz and classical come up delightfully sparkling in these transcriptions for two pianists
Transcribing music for two pianists (whether at one or two pianos) can often bring new insights, shorn of the brilliance and colour of the orchestration, the work’s bones are often seen better and can place the piece in new light. On this disc from SOMM, Manhattan to Montmartre, pianists Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown perform duet transcriptions of four iconic works, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and three works by George Gershwin, Second Rhapsody, An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. The Bernstein was transcribed for two pianos by American composer John Musto in 1998. Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, and An American in Paris were transcribed for piano duet by Julian Jacobson in 2014 and 2016 respectively, whilst Rhapsody in Blue was transcribed for piano duet by Henry Levine in 1925, a version that Gershwin used to play with friends.
In 1910, more than three-quarters of the population of New York were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, so no wonder the city’s musical culture developed as such a melting pot, combining music from European homelands with African American music and more. Irving Berlin was born in Russia, Vernon Duke was originally Vladimir Dukelsky, George Gershwin was the son of immigrants from Russia, Richard Rodger’s grandparents were Russian immigrants whilst Leonard Bernstein’s parents were from the Ukraine [I am indebted to Robert Matthew-Walker’s admirable booklet note for this fascinating information]. Additional to this Russian factor should be added that many (if not all) these immigrants were of Jewish origins, the Russian pogroms against the Jews in the late-19th and early 20th centuries causing significant problems.
The sense of musical hybridisation, the creation of new strains by combining existing ones, was palpable and of course, it continued on a multiple levels. So that George Gershwin, having mastered Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway via a genre that modern research suggests owes rather a lot of Klezmer, moved to reabsorb the 20th century classical idiom. With transcriptions for piano, we no longer have to worry about whether we should be listening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in its original jazz-band orchestration by Ferde Grofé or in the later symphonic version. The Second Rhapsody and An American in Paris would be premiered in Gershwin’s own orchestrations and there is evidence to suggest that he was intending to do his own orchestral version of Rhapsody in Blue.
The disc begins, however with Bernstein, his symphonic suite based on the music from the musical. West Side Story debuted in 1957 and Bernstein created the Symphonic Dances for the New York Philharmonic, which premiered the work in 1961. This is far more then simple greatest hits, it is a 20 minute sequence that effectively tells the story in music, with writing for orchestra that is more complex than Bernstein might consider for a stage musical.
Besides having individual solo careers, Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown have been playing as a piano duo since 2011 and it shows. The bring a sense of unanimity of purpose and clarity to this music. There is a lovely rhythmic snap to their Bernstein, along with a sense of relishing the complex textures and the drama. There is plenty of lyric beauty here, but what we constantly notice is Bernstein’s relishing of complexity of texture, rarely are there melodies with a simple oom-pah rhythm accompaniment. We have come a long way from Tin Pan Alley of the early 20th century. And of course, the short finale is devastating and far from a traditional musical.
Gershwin regarded his Second Rhapsody as the finest thing he had written, but it rarely gets proper attention. It lacks the dazzle of the earlier rhapsody and perhaps the panache. You don’t quite come out humming the tunes, but as a musical work it is more sophisticated and stronger than the earlier music. This strength comes out in Jacobson’s transcription, without the brilliance and colours of the orchestra (though the two pianists demonstrate their own wide range of colours) we get a sense of the work’s complex textures and remarkably mid-century musical style. Jacobson and Brown make the rhapsody seem less jazzy, and more akin to the music in Europe that Gershwin was listening to – Stravinsky, Ravel and perhaps even Bartok.
Whilst Gershwin’s An American in Paris was all his own work (after Rhapsody in Blue, he did the orchestrations of his Concerto in F and American in Paris himself), Gershwin still composed at the piano and it is this factor that probably lends the work to transcription. Gershwin wasn’t alone in this, Stravinsky’s own piano four-hands versions of his early ballets have developed come currency and these were not arrangements but initial versions. Again the rhythmic alertness of the playing delights, along with the way the two players mesh together so that fragments emerge from the textures and disappear, reflecting the colours of the original orchestra. This is a performance that puts a real smile on the face.
Finally we reach Rhapsody in Blue. Full of rhythmic verve and a remarkable range of colours, there is a nice swing to the music yet it clearly is not jazz. The transcription brings out the Rhapsody’s remarkable bones, and both Jacobson and Brown have the time of their lives with the music, managing to be fun and complex.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), transc. John Musto, 1998 – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story [21:52]
George Gershwin (1898-1937), transc. Julian Jacobson, 2014 – Second Rhapsody [15:03]
George Gershwin, transc. Julian Jacobson, 2016 – An American in Paris
George Gershwin, transc. Henry Levine, 1925 – Rhapsody in Blue
Julian Jacobson (piano)
Mariko Brown (piano)
SOMM SOMMCD 0635 1CD [72.30]
Buy the CD here: https://www.somm-recordings.com/recording/manhattan-to-montmartre/
April 8th 2022
From Manhattan to Montmartre CD Launch Concert
We are delighted to announce the Launch Concert for our piano duo CD of music by Gershwin and Bernstein, “Manhattan to Montmartre”. This includes Julian’s virtuoso transcriptions of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and the Second Rhapsody, as well as “Rhapsody in Blue” and the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story, for two pianos. The CD has already received excellent reviews.
Date: Friday April 8, 7 pm. Venue:
Coach House Pianos (Bösendorfer Room)
79 New King’s Road
London SW6 4SQ
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Alfredo Casella: Pupazzetti
Debussy: Petite Suite
Gershwin-Jacobson: An American in Paris
More information here – https://lightmusicsociety.com/2021/06/28/manhattan-to-montmartre-gershwin-and-bernstein/
Following our successful Kickstarter campaign we are delighted to announce our new CD, Manhattan to Montmartre, on the prestigious SOMM label, to be released in Summer 2021. The exciting programme features four masterpieces by Gershwin and Bernstein, with premier recordings of Julian’s transcriptions of An American in Paris and the Second Rhapsody.
Purchase the CD here:
BUSONI / ANTHONY HERSCHEL HILL / SATIE / DEBUSSY / CASELLA / POULENC
Julian Jacobson & Mariko Brown Piano Duo. Somm £10.00
Please click here for a promotional video for the CD.
“A wonderful concert, most musically and intelligently planned throughout and outstandingly well played. ”
(‘Musical Opinion’ magazine, issue no.1507, April-June 2016, London. Reviewer: James Palmer.)
Full review here
“It came as balm to the soul to encounter some real, sensitive music-making…the tumultuous ending [Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody] would have brought the house down in a properly packed venue – which is surely what the piece deserves.”
“All the pieces were played with a fine sense of the meticulous need for balance between the two players and an ability to bring a refined tone to widely varied repertoire”
[Gershwin/Jacobson 2nd Rhapsody]: “It is a major addition to the four-hand repertoire.” [Mariko Brown ‘Travels Through a Mist of Chinese Mountains’]: “…as atmospheric as a shansui watercolour, clear-textured, inventive in its use of the instrument, and retaining a sense of mystery despite its range of moods.”
(International Piano Magazine)
“Rhythmic steel and incisiveness which had us on the edge of our seats…”
(Music and Vision Daily)
“Debussy’s delicate ‘Epigraphes Antiques’ [were] played with a pellucid touch and perfect sound quality on Blackheath’s Steinway…”
“They played, thought and matched each other throughout in musical understanding, beauty of sound and speed of reaction. We felt privileged to hear them.”
(Chairman, Portsmouth Music Club)
“After the interval came Dances, Oracles, Mystery, performed to a series of pieces by Debussy, ravishingly played by Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown.”
Formed in 2011, the piano duo of Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown is now established as an ensemble of rare distinction, vitality and originality. Performances in London include St John’s Smith Square, Fairfield Hall, Blackheath Hall, Royal Academy of Music, Markson’s Bösendorfer series and Clapham Omnibus. The duo has been featured in the Lower Machen and Stow-in-the-Wold Festivals, at Manchester Art Gallery, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Chetham’s School of Music and many other venues. Abroad they have appeared regularly in France including their Paris debut in November 2018, and twice at the Madeira PianoFest. They have given three highly acclaimed concerts at the Southbank Purcell Room, in 2014, 2015 and 2019.
Their first recording was a CD of the music of Julian’s father Maurice Jacobson for the Naxos/British Music Society label. In 2017 they released their first CD on the SOMM label, pairing Busoni’s towering masterpiece the Fantasia contrappuntistica (easily the most compelling account I have ever heard – Musical Opinion) with a collection of rare French, Italian and English works including premiere recordings of the duet version of Debussy’s neglected ballet score Khamma and Anthony Herschel Hill’s Nocturne for two pianos. The CD received outstanding reviews and will be followed this year by the duo’s second CD for SOMM with music by Gershwin and Bernstein.
With a repertoire firmly centred on the great classics for piano duo repertoire, they have also continually sought out new and neglected repertoire. At the Purcell Room they gave the first performance of the piano duet version of Gary Carpenter’s After Braque in 2014 and of Nathan Williamson’s Instinctive Ritual (composed for the duo) in 2015. In 2016, in Manchester Art Gallery, the duo premiered Edward Lambert’s Aspects of Work, written for them and inspired by Ford Madox Brown’s painting Work which is part of the gallery’s permanent collection. Recently they have premiered Julian’s virtuoso concert transcriptions of two Gershwin masterpieces, the Second Rhapsody and An American in Paris, both published by Schott/Bardic Edition, with many subsequent performances.
Julian Jacobson studied piano and composition from the age of seven with Lamar Crowson and Arthur Benjamin, subsequently studying at the Royal College of Music, Queen’s College Oxford and privately with the great Hungarian pianist Louis Kentner. He enjoys an international career as soloist, chamber musician with many prominent artists, and teacher, appearing in over 40 countries and making regular visits in recent years to the Far East. He has been soloist with several of the principal British orchestras under conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Jane Glover and Tamás Vásáry, as well as appearing in most of the leading UK festivals. He has been particularly acclaimed for his performances of the Beethoven Sonatas, of which he has given eight complete cycles, most recently at The Forge, Camden Town (2011-12). In 2003 he performed the entire cycle in a single day in aid of the charity WaterAid, an event which attracted worldwide media coverage: he repeated the “marathon” in 2004 and 2013 and is planning a further performance in November 2022. He has recorded for Meridian, Hyperion, Chandos, Decca Argo, Continuum and other labels. Julian Jacobson is a Professor at the Royal College of Music and Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and also Guest Professor at Xiamen University, China.
Anglo-Japanese Mariko Brown began her piano studies with Martyn Dyke, with whom she performed regularly including at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, as well as for many outreach community projects. She made her first concerto appearance age nine under Dr.Ruth Gipps, subsequently going on to study at the Guildhall School Junior Department with Professor Joan Havill where she won the prestigious Lutine Prize. This led to concerto appearances at the Barbican Hall and St.Giles Cripplegate as part of the City of London Festival. During this time she also took up composition with Gary Carpenter, receiving a prize for her Oboe Sonata. She was awarded the Principal’s Prize on graduation from the Junior department and went on to continue her studies at the Senior Department, with both teachers and also Simon Bainbridge, graduating in 2000. Her Piano Sonata, commissioned and performed by Helen Reid, in 2004, was premiered at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. She has also been Musical Director for productions at the Arcola Theatre, London and Eye Theatre in Suffolk. Enjoying a varied musical life, Mariko has also been for many years a dedicated teacher, including at Junior Guildhall and currently at the Yehudi Menuhin School.
Mariko performed the Grieg Piano Concerto in 2016 and 2017 with the Amati Orchestra and LRO and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Sutton Symphony Orchestra in 2018.