There are piano concertos and piano concertos, and Gershwin's in F Major is neither, really; at least he himself called it a “New York concerto” which is rather better.
It is pretty well impossible, to be honest, to take it at all seriously otherwise. It’s a conglomeration of bits of other Gershwin with a piano obbligato, and that’s it. You pick out the bits from Porgy and Bess, American in Paris, Strike up the Band . . .
That’s not to say it can’t be great fun to listen to: and Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel played it like a soundtrack to a Tom and Jerry epic: rousing and glorious, slyly sentimental, and a little unashamed closing-title weepiness before it crashed out in a glorious big-band wah-wah free for all.
In the first movement, it’s a grand bash for piano and orchestra, and Thibaudet certainly gave the piano a hammering. It was played as a bit of a joke, over-the-top, all Barnum and Bailey, just as it needs to be. The percussion certainly fizzed and thumped, with some great knock-out punches, although the strings did seem to me to sound rather thick in texture.
This isn’t really Gershwin 'classicising' jazz (or ‘jazzifying classical’) the way I’ve heard it played (both ways round) in the past; it’s Gershwin having heard it, been aware of it (I’d hesitate to say was ‘involved’ in it) and no more. But for it to work, the performers have to feel some involvement in the atmosphere of it, and both soloist and orchestra obviously did.
The second movement piano was nicely cool, almost post-modernist to begin with; this was Porgy, a little sad, a little reflective. A man who coulda been a contender. A piano that had been, and a heavyweight at that.
And thus complemented by pure, unashamed orchestral teary-eyed sentimentality. A perfect contrast with the roaring rhythms that followed: inescapably reminding you of those huge American steam engines with, seemingly, a dozen drive wheels either side, great long tenders and an enormous spotlight on the front driving a beam through the night before great trailing clouds of steam.
Maazel had, apparently, asked for slower tempos in rehearsal, but then decided the faster ones of his (very talented, particularly the expressive force of the trumpeter) soloists were better. It was a good call. It made him another conductor of 78 going on 18 for the night . .
So Prokofiev said it was “a succession of 32-bar choruses”; more, tonight, really, a succession of chorus girls, perhaps; and Diaghilev said it was “good jazz but bad Liszt.” Thibaudet certainly played it like Liszt (but not as though it was written by him) in a maddish mood. I don’t care if it’s not great music. I loved it. ‘Finger lickin’ good.’ Hey, man?
Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F Major; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, New York Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel.