The July 2014 edition of Looking Back to Bookspan’s “101 Masterpieces of Music and Their Composers” features a composer whose lasting works were created late in life, César Franck, and another composer who died before his potential was fully realized, George Gershwin.
Martin Bookspan writes, “Franck’s modesty and nobility of soul were allied with a unique individuality and originality. The sensuous and mystical in music were the elements that most strongly appealed to him.” Franck was one of the finest organists of his day and was professor of organ at the Paris Conservatory. Many of his compositions were large scale choral works on religious subjects. It was not until the last four years of his life that Franck composed the music for which he is best remembered, including his Sonata in A Major for violin and piano, and his Symphony in D minor.
The A Major Sonata was written in 1886 as a wedding present for a great virtuoso, violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. Bookspan calls the sonata “a work that reaches out and involves performers in the strength and beauty of its lyricism.” Martin Bookspan’s first choice of performers for the sonata is the recording done by violinist Erica Morini and pianist Rudolf Firkusny. Unfortunately, the only available reissue of that performance is a large, expensive collection called “The Art of Erica Mornini.” Assuming you won’t be spending more than a hundred dollars to obtain that 11-CD set you might go instead with Bookspan’s second choice from violinist Isaac Stern. Of the modern recordings, Joshua Bell’s 2012 release made with Jeremy Denk will be a great option, and since one of Bell’s teachers was a student of Ysaÿe’s it can be argued this is the more authentic continuation of the Franck/Ysaÿe legacy.
Though some of César Franck’s contemporaries were highly critical of his Symphony in D minor, over the years it has proven to be one of the best examples of French Romanticism. Its exultant last movement is one of the great symphonic finales in the repertoire. Martin Bookspan’s favorite edition of the Franck symphony, and one that is a treasured part of my collection, is the 1961 release from Pierre Monteux and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. About that performance, Bookspan writes, “Monteux truly recreates the symphony and it is as close to a definitive performance as anything in the current record catalogs.” It is still considered as one of the top interpretations of the work. If backed into a corner and forced to choose a more recent performance I’d go with Riccardo Chailly’s 1987 recording for London Records (now reissued by ArkivMusic) if only for its coupling with another fine composition by Franck, his Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra featuring pianist Jorge Bolet.
Drawing a parallel with the nineteenth-century composers of German song, with Franz Schubert as the quintessential example, Martin Bookspan observes that during the flowering of twentieth-century American popular song our Franz Schubert “…was the genius who walked among us so briefly named George Gershwin.” He, also like Schubert, was a prolific writer of song who died at an early age. Gershwin was only 38 when he died of a brain tumor. His most famous orchestral works, Rhapsody in Blue (1924), An American in Paris (1928), and the Piano Concerto in F Major (1925), leave us to wonder what great compositions he might have created were he allowed even as little as 10 or 20 additional years.
Gershwin’s first major foray into a blending of jazz and classical music was Rhapsody in Blue, for orchestra and piano. The concept is all Gershwin, but the actual orchestration is by another American composer, Ferde Grofé. Leonard Bernstein’s 1959 performance, leading the Columbia Symphony Orchestra from the keyboard, is held in high regard by Martin Bookspan.
In an interview, Gershwin described An American in Paris as “a rhapsodic ballet.” He stated, “My purpose here is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris, as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.“ Martin Bookspan again includes a Leonard Bernstein performance among his favorites, specifically the second of two recordings made by Bernstein.
Though not as popular as Rhapsody in Blue or his tone poem An American in Paris, to my ears the real hints of the even greater composer Gershwin might have become are heard in his Piano Concerto in F Major. It is in this work that his synthesis of jazz and classical is elevated to a new hybrid style, with the whole becoming something entirely different than the parts. Still in the current catalog is Bookspan’s recommended performance from pianist Earl Wild and conductor Arthur Fiedler. It is a generously filled disc that also includes Wild and Fiedler’s reading of Rhapsody in Blue, the “I Got Rhythm” variations, plus Gershwin’s An American in Paris and the lively Cuban Overture. Bookspan also recommends the performance recorded by pianist Andre Previn and conductor Andre Kostelanetz.
Of the modern recordings that include these three Gershwin masterpieces I can easily recommend Michael Tilson Thomas’ collaboration with pianist Garrick Ohlsson recorded by RCA Victor.
Purchase The Recordings
Franck: Sonata in A Major; Stern/Zakin
Franck: Sonata in A Major; Bell/Denk
Franck: Symphony in D minor; Monteux/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Franck: Symphony in D minor; Chailly/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Gershwin: An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue; Piano Concerto in F Major; Bernstein, Previn, Kostelanetz
Gershwin: An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue; Piano Concerto in F Major; Tilson Thomas, Ohlsson