Who really owns Gershwin?

George Gershwin
Recent recordings of George Gershwin's concert works and 'Porgy and Bess' may not be Americans' idea of Gershwin—but is Gershwin, played with love and care and imagination.

“Who says that only Americans know how to play Gershwin?" asks Gramophone magazine this month as it hails a new Gershwin CD from the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the German orchestra that calls itself the world's oldest. “By this time possibly nobody," the British record guide answers its rhetorical self.

But if you ain't got that swing ....

The Leipzigers' new recording of “Rhapsody in Blue" and the Piano Concerto in F features the ancient orchestra's current music director, Riccardo Chailly, and pianist Stefano Bollani. Both are Italian. The playing from ensemble and soloist is lovely. The jazziness comes across, depending on your fondness for foreign accents, as fetchingly feisty or as conveying a faint whiff of condescension.

We also have a recent recording of “Porgy and Bess" from Austria conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the once-controversial leader of the Vienna chapter of the early music period-instrument movement back in the '60s and now lionized all-around conductor. A few months before his 80th birthday, Harnoncourt realized a lifelong wish of performing “Porgy," which he calls an American “Wozzeck," at a 2009 summer festival in Graz. The recording of that concert performance shows that he means it.

So who really owns Gershwin? An American might answer: Leonard Bernstein, André Previn, Oscar Levant, Duke Ellington, Michael Tilson Thomas, Miles Davis, Earl Wild, Fred Astaire, Sarah Vaughan, William Bolcom, James Levine, Marcus Roberts and Audra McDonald.


But the matter of Gershwin entitlement is obviously not a simple dispute. Schoenberg played tennis with Gershwin when they both lived in L.A. and thought him like a son, different as their music, temperaments and tennis were. Other great European composers—Berg, Stravinsky and Ravel, in particular—felt affection for Gershwin and his music (and, perhaps, a touch of jealousy for his bank account). And Gershwin picked up important compositional pointers from them (as they continued to eye his bank account).

Old World musical legends—Heifetz, Richter, Toscanini, Klemperer, the wonderful Hungarian pianist György Cziffra—knew how to play Gershwin. Their way. Klemperer may have sounded to be slumming when he memorialized Gershwin as an American Offenbach, but Richter turned Gershwin into a gripping American Prokofiev, and Cziffra's “Rhapsody in Blue," recorded in Budapest in 1955, is intriguingly Lisztian. These days, British conductor Simon Rattle and French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet are generally credible straight-ahead Gershwin enthusiasts among the Europeans.

Geography may not be everything, but it does help shape us. Born in Brooklyn, Gershwin found fame in New York and moved to Los Angeles at the end of his short life. And growing up in a show business-soaked environment can make Angelenos identify with Gershwin in the way Viennese do with Mozart and Schubert or Parisians with Debussy and Ravel.

But more than that, those great American musicians listed above are likely to have shaped our broader musical values. I, for instance, loved it when Bernstein went to Vienna in the '70s to conduct Beethoven and teach its Philharmonic the proper way to play Mahler, exaggerating the Jewish elements in the scores as an interpretive wake-up call.

Tilson Thomas' Tchaikovsky—filtered through his L.A. youth working with Heifetz at USC and growing up around Stravinsky—offers a context that Russian-raised conductors lack. It was thanks to Previn programming Vaughn Williams with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, not recordings from the Brits, that I fell in love with these very British symphonies.

If we don't, however, demand “authenticity" from Americans and appreciate that new layers might be revealed from different points of view, obviously we must grant other cultures the same license with Gershwin. Plus Gershwin was anything but stylistically stuffy himself. He wrote songs to be given individual character by individual performers, or “covered" as we would say now.

To further complicate the issue, we have a trove of Gershwin's own recordings, which show a rhythmic unflappability and unostentatious quality of accenting that we call swing. But Bernstein could swing too while exaggerating almost everything he touched, whether blowing up the symphonic side of Gershwin or shimmying obscenely on the piano bench when he played the “Rhapsody."

That leads to the most important question of all about Gershwin interpretation: What is swing? And it is the one with no proper answer. Swing, like sex, loses its essence in explanation. In fact, swing maybe is sex. And like sex, national and ethnic differences do matter, even if all cultures procreate. Harnoncourt and Chailly address swing specifically in the booklets accompanying their Gershwin CDs.

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