★★★★ (out of five)
On first hearing, this seemed nothing special — a Russian-Jewish pianist, Kirill Gerstein, tackling the two Gershwin concertos with the all-American St Louis orchestra. Worthy cultural diplomacy, but nothing that immediately gripped the ear. It took a second spin to grasp the truly challenging aspects of this undertaking.
Gerstein takes the jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue and bends the rhythms in such a way that they sound almost Jewish. Remember that Gershwin’s parents were, like Gerstein, Russian Jews and that the music the composer knew as a boy did not live between western staves and crisp white collars. Their music had flexible time and any space it could fill. What this interpretation does is to bring out the otherness of the Rhapsody, downplaying its origins in jazz and symphony. The conductor, David Robertson, is left at times a quarter-beat behind, so bendy is Gerstein’s rubato, and so fascinatingly revealing.
Before he moves on to the Concerto in F, Gerstein trips through a few smoky piano solos, just as George Gershwin always did. The Concerto in F falls between stools as it usually does, but the lead melody gets more oxygen than most pianists allow and a wistfulness comes through that may be one of Gershwin’s deep-seated repressions. More than a record, this is a psychological essay on the unknown Gershwin, a fascinating rhythm on a familiar theme.
Here’s a taste: