Interview with Riccardo Chailly and Stefano Bollani

For almost a century, Gershwin’s music has come to be surrounded by an accumulation of analysis, examination and even polemics. Now another opportunity has arisen to explore the question of its eclecticism, and its dual nature – halfway between classical music and jazz, between the serious and the popular traditions – and this time it promises to be cleared up once and for all. An orchestra, and not just any “classical” orchestra, but the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig, one of the glories of the classical world, which numbers Mendelssohn, Furtwängler and Bruno Walter among its past luminaries, has made a recording of the composer’s music. At the piano is a musician with a strictly jazz background, Stefano Bollani, and on the podium is a conductor, Riccardo Chailly, who has championed the masterpieces of twentieth-century music, plumbed the depths of Mahlerian anxiety, and taken a responsive, fresh approach to Bach. Gershwin’s music stands at the junction of many paths, and a discussion with Chailly and Bollani helps with understanding the different directions they come from, and whether the apparent mountain peaks or river valleys that mark their boundaries are merely figments of our imagination.
Riccardo Chailly: As far as I’m concerned, the Concerto in F has a greatness and a difficulty that make it comparable to Stravinsky.

Why Stravinsky, exactly?
RC: The piece is Neo-classical in form, and the thing I want to do is restore the Concerto’s Neo-classical structure. Gershwin feels close in spirit to Stravinsky to me, in terms of the sound-world, the orchestration and the constant search for a different world of rhythm. With Stefano Bollani we have tried to restore this formal rigour much more than is usually the case in the performing tradition.

Where can we most expect to hear this “rigour”?
RC: In Gershwin, there’s a continual slackening of the basic tempo and a danger of a variable sense of movement: what you have to do instead, depending on the ornaments and the flexibility of the tempo, is maintain a feeling of rubato, in relation to a Haupttakt, the main, established pulse. You can “bend” the tempo within a given bar, but the blues beat is constant. We tried not to get carried away to extremes of freedom, in the first movement and even more in the second (a lazy Après-midi…), maintaining the blues pulse. The finale, on the other hand, is almost all in one tempo, which comes inexorably “crashing down” as I see it. The idea was to arrive on the last page, where the trumpets and the rest of the brass are trilling, as if here the music were a shout that grabs the listener unable to resist the excitement of this raging moto perpetuo any longer.
Stefano Bollani: If there’s one thing you can say, it’s that our Concerto in F is in time: it doesn’t indulge in melancholy, it seems like a ballet with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, whom Gershwin actually wrote for…

But what about the sense of swing? How do you square that with the formal rigour?
RC: In America, players ask, “How do you want it, swing or straight?”. In the Catfish Row suite, for instance, all the swing rhythms that we recorded don’t correspond exactly to the way the music is written, but instead to a long-standing, typically American performing tradition: a rhythmic swing, a sense of magical fluidity, the irrational nature of the fact that you cannot reconcile what you hear with what you see, because it has its roots in a style that transcends notation.

Where is the point of equilibrium in Gershwin between jazz influences and classical ambitions?
RC: What Gershwin originally wanted to do was to import the language of 1920s jazz into the classical repertoire, but maintaining an idea of freshness, artlessness and poetic immediacy. My interpretation has a direct influence on the type of sound I ask for, and here again the Gewandhaus players responded immediately, with precision and a deep understanding of the style. Right from the first clarinet glissando in the Rhapsody in Blue, you sometimes hear an over-exposed Gershwin. The Gewandhaus, in contrast, preserves Gershwin’s spontaneity, the key element in what makes him great. There’s no need always to feel tempted to keep doing something different, the piece is so well written that it stands on its own merits. Gershwin is one of those composers who have suffered the most interpretative abuses, like Puccini, like Rachmaninov, and it’s no coincidence that both these composers are contemporaries of his: they have suffered from performers taking the wrong approach, arrogantly going for extremes of interpretation that the composers themselves considered wide of the mark.
SB: Over the years, Gershwin has become grander than he was originally, and his music has been performed in a more classical manner. He’s ended up by becoming a Romantic. But he’s not a Romantic, he’s not Brahms, who wants you to dig deep into every bar and wring it dry… To consider Gershwin a great composer you don’t have to go all out to find his classical roots, or the improvisatory freedom of jazz.

Nevertheless, there is a constant tendency in the literature on Gershwin to analyse the music with an idea of teasing out his models, pinpointing what he inherited from art-music, from Grieg and beyond…
SB: Gershwin is not someone who was born listening to Grieg; at most he tried it out: he proudly wanted to write the first truly American concerto in history, but I don’t hear either Grieg or Mozart in him. Perhaps something of Rachmaninov, but in the sense of a model of a success. For me, Gershwin is very much a kid, he tends to go very much by “inspiration”, and I hear a true America in him, in its simplicity.

Is this “national” music?
RC: Gershwin’s music comes out of a world that is profoundly American, that of Broadway. That is the environment that Gershwin was born into, and it was his first musical culture. Then all his genius came bursting forth, and now he is not only a classic of American culture, but also one of the giants of the twentieth century. I feel that the melodies collected by Dvořák for his “New World” Symphony are more American in inspiration than those that spring from Gershwin’s imagination.
Does the same hold true for the pieces from Porgy and Bess?
RC: In the Catfish Row suite there’s even a fugue: you can hear fragments in it that are reminiscent of the Stravinsky of Agon… Here he completely steps away from the “romantic” plushness of the typical Gershwin sound and moves into a highly complex mass of rhythms. Here Gershwin has to show his mastery of counterpoint. And here again his rhythmic sound-world reminds me of late Stravinsky, although it doesn’t have the same harmonic boldness.

Your performance here of “Summertime” is very poetic…
RC: A simple melodic line, played by the solo violin, with no trace of self-indulgence. I kept a tempo of q = 72, which seems from the manuscript to be the tempo that Gershwin wanted: relaxed, never grand.

What is left of the authentically jazzy in this music?
RC:  We recorded an interesting selection: we play the jazz band version of the Rhapsody, the 1924 one orchestrated by Grofé, with its very curious timbre and an even stronger surface jazz sound than the symphonic version. This makes a contrast with what Gershwin achieves in the Concerto in F, where he demonstrates his complete independence as a composer, able to create an absolutely wonderful piece of scoring, and not only in its rhythmic control and rich dynamic range. If you analyse it in depth, you can see that the writing is full of Nebenstimmen, secondary voices that weave in and out of the principal lines, which is extremely interesting…

And seen instead from the jazz musician’s point of view?
SB: It wasn’t Gershwin’s intention to dress jazz up in its “Sunday best”, like other European composers of his time. He liked jazz. If he liked it, why dress it up as something else? What I sense, instead, is a whole range of situations, one of which is jazz. More than making “symphonic jazz”, as advertised by Paul Whiteman, Gershwin wanted to create music that was one hundred per cent “American”, which is an even more ambitious goal.

A jazz pianist facing a classical orchestra and a “borderline” composer: how did you relate to each other?
SB: Riccardo is also an ex-drummer, which helped me a lot. The problem for me, when I play with a symphony orchestra, is the vocabulary, by which I don’t mean musical vocabulary. I mean how you talk about music and how you rehearse in a classical orchestra. To give just one very simple example: when the conductor lowers his arm, then I come in. With a symphony orchestra it doesn’t work like that, the gesture comes before the attack, there’s a beat between the gesture and the attack. The conductor of a jazz band dances the music, the band plays on his movements. Riccardo was very patient…

Jazz is improvisation: what margin is there here for improvisation?
SB: In the Concerto, I don’t improvise a single note. I do in the Rag and in some parts of the Rhapsody, simply because I know that at the premiere Gershwin did so himself: he not only hadn’t had time to orchestrate the piece, he hadn’t written down the whole piano part. So I took the liberty of improvising some little variations on the theme. The Rhapsody is essentially a sequence of lovely themes that run along one after the other, over a quarter of an hour. And you can play with these themes. I don’t want to drag Gershwin over to the side of jazz at all costs. But certainly to the side of lightness.
RC: At the end of Rialto Ripples, which is an exhilarating piece of music written at the age of eighteen on a ragtime rhythm, very much in the style of Scott Joplin, you’ll hear Bollani play a free introduction and two other passages that are his, variations on the theme. Then we end with a final whistle from three slide flutes as if to say, “Did you think we were serious?”. The whistle goes up and then down, and I say “Auf Wiedersehen!” to the orchestra. But Stefano stays on alone and restarts the Rialto theme in an altered version, finishing up with some other variations. “Stefano, I’m going,” I say. And he answers, “Bye, Riccardo. Could you order the linguine for me as well?”…

Gian Mario Benzing