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 Recording of the Week  John Wilson conducts music by Gershwin

John Wilson and his hand-picked vintage orchestra kicked off their survey of Composers in Hollywood two years ago, with a fabulous collection of the film-music of Cole Porter; with this live recording from the Royal Albert Hall they’ve turned their attention to the silver-screen career of George Gershwin, who together with his lyricist brother Ira made an inestimable contribution to the movie soundtracks of the 40s and 50s. If that sounds like I’ve got my dates askew, bear with me… Gershwin spent relatively little of his short but dizzyingly prolific career actually in Hollywood – his first visit to Tinseltown, for the 1931 movie Delicious, was marred by the savage cuts which Fox Film made to his score, and though he enjoyed a more auspicious return a few years later for Shall We Dance?, he barely had a chance to bask in the triumph before a brain tumour claimed him at just 38. But as Wilson has pointed out, George’s real cinematic legacy was posthumous: almost all of the songs on this disc became famous via films that were released in the two decades after his death, and particularly in the wake of the fanciful 1945 biopic Rhapsody in Blue.

John Wilson
John Wilson

The JWO trademarks of shimmering strings, swooning rubato and almost laughably virtuosic brass-playing (check out the trill on a concert high E flat at the end of ‘Treat me rough’!) all give as much pleasure as ever in Gershwin’s music. There are just two vocalists this time round, but both are capable of such variety of mood and colour that it feels like more! The celebrated British big-band singer Matthew Ford is becoming something of a regular with the JWO (he delivered several stand-out performances on their Cole Porter and MGM musicals discs, as well as at their sell-out Proms in 2011 and 2013), and he’s his usual classy, sensitive self here in numbers made famous by Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly.

His sparring-partner here is West End star Louise Dearman, who near enough stole the show as a sweet and sassy Lois/Bianca in the JWO’s Proms performance of Kiss Me, Kate two years ago but makes her first appearance with the orchestra on disc here. Some of the best-known songs on the programme fall to her, and she doesn’t disappoint: she’s wistful without being mawkish in both ‘But Not For Me’ (from Girl Crazy) and ‘The Man I Love’, and both she and Ford are so unfailingly alive to Ira’s lyrics that by the end I was musing that Gershwin was surely up there with Schubert (another songwriter whose genius was cut tragically short in his thirties) when it comes to depicting lovelorn melancholy.

But Dearman’s beautifully introverted account of ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ was the real show-stopper on that night in the Albert Hall: she never sounds like an imitation of Ella, or Barbra, or any of the other legendary performers who’ve put their stamp on the song (with his usual concern for period authenticity, John told me he was keen to strip away memories of famous cover-versions and throw the focus back onto how they might have sounded in the original studio), and pulls off that rare feat of making a piece of music which verges on being over-exposed seem new-minted and fresh. The spellbound silence before the storm of applause which greeted this in the live concert was the longest and most rapt I’ve heard in the venue barring the one at the end of Daniel Barenboim’s Ring Cycle a few years ago!

You can read my exclusive interview with John about the project below – some fascinating insights into what really set Gershwin apart from his contemporaries in Hollywood, as well as one or two hints as to possible future projects…

Gershwin in Hollywood

The John Wilson Orchestra, John Wilson

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC