George Gershwin wrote at least two masterpieces, Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris , out of his misunderstanding of jazz, which he thought characterized by stiff, jumpy rhythms and staccato phrasing. But then, he meant in Rhapsody in Blue to break the boundaries that others had placed on jazz. He described the idea for Rhapsody as occurring to him in an instant: “Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow.” Louis Armstrong did more to kill misconceptions about jazz than did the wonderfully successful Rhapsody in Blue, which nonetheless inspired composers to work with jazz sounds and lively rhythms. In 1928 Gershwin showed what could be done with both in An American in Paris , which he wrote in a two-piano version that he subsequently orchestrated. He gave the two – piano score to his publisher, but that original version wasn’t published until 1980. It since has been recorded several times, including by the well- known duo Katia and Marielle Labeque.
Now the popular British duo Goldstone and Clemmow have recorded it in the company of some more obscure Jazz Age works and with a previously unrecorded two-piano version of Milhaud’s La Creation du monde by the composer himself. I previously reviewed a recording of romantic works by this piano duo; unkindly, but I believe truthfully, I said that the recording was for people who liked to hear their Chopin sound like Gilbert and Sullivan. The good news here is that Goldstone and Clemmow ‘s jaunty style is more at home here in the Jazz Age , and that they have presented an unhackneyed repertoire, including the recordings of not only of the Milhaud but of Seiber and Edward Burlingame Hill, as well as the arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust by Louis Merkur.
Nonetheless, I don’t think this is the perfect recording of An American in Paris. Perhaps such a recording on two pianos would be impossible. Where the orchestration adds weight, our pianists compensate by slowing down, or sometimes by fooling with, the tempo or phrasing. This is slightly disconcerting elsewhere and truly disturbing in one place: the blues theme that is usually played with something approaching nonchalance and that here is tugged and pushed for no reason that I can see. They are much less mannered in the Milhaud, which I know primarily from the recordings by the composer and by Charles Munch. On two pianos, the opening is much less mysterious, but also less sentimentally played, than in the recording the composer conducted. In fact, the piece works remarkably well for two pianos, and the zest and clarity of this performance should interest many listeners. About the Hill, composed between 1922 and 1924, and the Moyzes he lived between 1906 and 1982 and published his Jazz Sonata in 1932), one can say that a jazz influence is muted I hear nothing jazzy about the movement Tempo giusto in the Hill, for instance, yet it is a pleasing piece, with a delightful melody over an obsessive rhythmic figure. Moyzes, a Slovak composer who graduated from the Prague Conservatory, has written a much more dramatic work in his sonata and one that has even less to do with jazz, except if one considers every dance movement jazzy. That does not make his sonata, especially its waltz movement, any less charming. Matyas Seiber (1905-60), who was born in Budapest and thanks to the Nazis ended up in England, wrote a series of short, easy studies in dance rhythms, some of which are found here, and all which are appealing.
Finally, Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust is made rather grand by arranger Louis Merker. The Embraceable You is Percy Grainger’s expansion of an arrangement by an American composer Maurice Whitney. The renditions of these two popular songs start great jazz versions – Louis Armstrong’s Star Dust , Pee Wee Russell’s and Charlie Parker’s Embraceable You – dancing in my head. Still, it is easy to recommend this unique disc that shows the widespread, though greatly dissipated, influence of jazz on world music, and that contains several world premiere recordings. For many the Milhaud would alone make it worth acquiring.