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Gershwin: Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra

When Walter Damrosch, delighted by what he had heard in Rhapsody in Blue, commissioned a piano concerto from Gershwin, the composer had to confront the issue of building from his Broadway-tune and jazz-based improvisational style something that would pass muster in exalted circles.The New York Symphony was not, after all, Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra: a certain traditional bent was to be expected of musicians and audiences alike.Many regard the Concerto in F—the old-fashioned title may contribute to this assessment—as Gershwin’s highest achievement, though I find him more relaxed in the episodic structure of the rhapsody and the succession of separate numbers in Porgy and Bess . However that may be, his easy mingling here of Charleston, blues, barrelhouse, and now and then a hint of ragtime is carried off with such high spirit that you accept the idea without worrying too much about the sonata and rondo forms he thought he was using -which of course means that the piece works.

Brash percussion and winds in the first four bars announce an orchestral introduction of Charleston rhythms and a swinging theme that concludes with the opening percussion figure again. What apper at first to be languid, directionless musings by the piano soloist are soon perceived as outling the principal theme. Agitated entries from the orchestra and then soloist swell to a full statement of this theme and a short cadenza: one thing you can always expect from Gershwin is that sooner or later in every movement, sometimes twice, he will let out all the stops in a full blown statement of his best melody. The Charleston-and-swing from the start returns to commence the development; note particularly the episode that transforms this figure into something very close to the song “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” This section settles into the wonderful cantabile  passage stated by the English horn and strings, by turns indolent and gracious, an elegant transformation of the main theme. A bit of barrelhouse breaks our, accentuated with slapstick in the percussion, and works itself into a scherzando. After the general pause, at the grandiose recapitulation of the principal theme, you at last sense closure at hand. The pace quickens, with the various bits and pieces commingled in a brilliant finish.

The Andante is a blues, with sultry solo work by a trumpet player with felted mute. The main theme seems closely related to that of the first movement in the way it hovers around close intervals of a step or two: from one of the motives the trumpet player has essayed there emerges a faster blues for the piano. Here the strings strum a banjo-style accompaniment. A third theme, broad and tender, appears in the orchestra as though a refrain -all this is very similar in structure to the Rhapsody in Blue  -before the movement subsides in the smoky atmosphere where it began, he solo work now taken by the flute.

Where the first two movements are driven by their strong melodic content the third propels itself more by virtue of the hammering sixteenth-note rhythms it establishes in the first few bars. In form, the movement is more or less a rondo. The xylophone statement toward the tend introduces reminiscences of material from the first two movements, and the concerto concludes as it began, with the big timpani strokes.

Infusing old European forms with the zesty freedom of American jazz and theatre tunes was an obvious challenge to serious and imaginative composers, from Europeans like Stravinsky and Milhaud to the Americans Copland and Bernstein Gershwin was as quaified as any to undertake the task. For all you will read of his stuggles with the materials of high composition, his solution strkes me as representing something as typically American in attitude as Rachmaninov’s concertos of roughly the same period are Russian or Bartok’s Hungarian.

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