The opening of the Concerto in F had me more than a little concerned: those extra rim-shots on the snare drum, the spotlit clarinet trills—and Freddy Kempf’s extremely dreamy first entrance seemed to herald one of those mushy, micromanaged, self-regarding lecture demonstrations in the “authentic” jazz style. If you listen to a truly authentic performance (i.e., Earl Wild), you find just the opposite: generally swift tempos and rubato that never breaks the back of the phrase. But my fears were unfounded. Once past the opening section, this performance turns out to be beautiful, stylish, light, and elegant. Kempf makes the music his own, to be sure, but in a good way, while Andrew Litton, who knows the music cold, gets the orchestra to play as to the manner born. The trumpet solo in the slow movement, with its quivering vibrato, is particularly marvelous. Special mention must be made of the finale, one of the first since Earl Wild’s that really takes the music up to tempo (sound sample below)—and thrilling it is.
The remainder of the program goes swimmingly. Rhapsody in Blue, played in its original jazz band scoring, gets a sensitive, straightforward reading in which once again Kempf makes his points with a light touch, especially in the “big tune”. Here, the closing pages could have more sheer guts, perhaps, but it’s hard to fault Kempf for consistently sticking to his approach. The Second Rhapsody, in Gershwin’s original 1931 orchestration, is magnificent from first note to last. It has never been done better, and the “I Got Rhythm” Variations are also as brilliantly played as we have any right to expect. BIS’s SACD engineering is typically splendid: perfectly balanced between the piano and orchestra, warm, natural, with a wide but not unnatural (for home listening) dynamic range. An almost perfect disc, then, and if you’re looking for all of Gershwin’s music for piano and orchestra in top quality sound in a single package, this is pretty hard to beat.