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 Recording of the Week  Rhapsody in Blue – Grosvenor and Kempf

I’ve got two new recordings, both by British pianists, of Gershwin’s jazz-infused masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue to tell you about this week.

Born in 1977, Freddy Kempf was a real child prodigy, making his concerto debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of eight and winning the prestigious BBC Young Musician of the Year for his performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1992. Awards and many accolades have followed as well as a number of critically acclaimed recordings on BIS.

Benjamin Grosvenor
Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor is following a similar pattern, albeit about fifteen years behind. He won the Piano section of the 2004 BBC Young Musician aged just 11, and I still remember clearly his astonishingly mature and musical reading of the Ravel G major Concerto in the final (which was ultimately won by violinist Nicola Benedetti).

He signed to Decca last year (as the first British pianist on the label since the likes of Curzon, Lympany and Katin in the 1940s and 50s) and after a solo recital disc last summer, this new disc marks his debut concerto recording.

Gershwin wrote the two piano score of Rhapsody in Blue at the end of 1923 and handed it over to Ferde Grofé to orchestrate at the beginning of the following year. Grofé also made later versions in 1927 and 1942 for bigger orchestras, but here both Kempf and Grosvenor opt for the original 1924 version, which is definitely the most intimate and colourful of the three, scored as it is for three woodwind players (who play oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet and various sizes of saxophone), a pair each of trumpets, horns and trombones, tuba (doubling string bass), banjo, celesta, orchestral piano, a variety of percussion and eight violins.

Both discs contain some terrific playing from both piano soloist and members of the small orchestra (the Kempf is with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton, while the Grosvenor is with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under James Judd). The Grosvenor recording is generally a little faster (the Kempf isn’t slow by the way!) and as such often sounds a little more ‘on the edge’, which I think is actually a good thing here. Similarly the orchestral solos are slightly more audacious in the Grosvenor (again a good thing) but the orchestral textures generally are more clearly defined in the Kempf recording. That said I prefer the recorded piano sound on the Grosvenor and he has a sparkle and spontaneity to his playing which I didn’t quite get to the same degree from Kempf.

Freddy Kempf
Freddy Kempf

Of course Rhapsody in Blue is only about fifteen minutes long, so although it is the piece mentioned on the cover, there is a lot of other repertoire to consider also. Grosvenor chooses the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he is playing at the Proms next Tuesday) and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. The Saint-Saëns has some beautiful moments, and you again get a real sense of spontaneity in Grosvenor’s playing. That said, I didn’t always get the sense of structure, and the woodwind seem a little distant and rather muddied at times. The Ravel though is superb – poetic, imaginative and beautifully phrased and crafted throughout – worth the cost of the disc alone. The first movement shimmers and tingles with energy, the slow movement is beautiful, and the last movement romps with excitement.

Kempf chooses an all-Gershwin programme to go with the Rhapsody in Blue, featuring the Piano Concerto in F major (Gershwin’s response to a commission for a ‘proper’ concerto, although in truth it still takes the rhythms, melodic structures and bluesy harmonies of popular music), the Second Rhapsody and the Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’. The Piano Concerto is terrifically exciting, with wonderful orchestral sounds and very stylish playing from Kempf. And as a collection of all Gershwin’s music for piano and orchestra on one disc, this is most definitely up there with the very best.

I’ll most definitely be revisiting both of these discs again in the future, and although this seemed to start off like a comparative review, with only fifteen minutes of music in common, maybe it is not too much of a luxury to have both!

Rhapsody in Blue

Freddy Kempf (piano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton

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

Benjamin Grosvenor plays Rhapsody in Blue

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, James Judd

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC