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Player-piano Prodigy

June 2024
1min read

Gershwin Plays Gershwin
The Piano Rolls

Elektra Nonesuch 9 79287-2 (one CD), $15.98. CODE: AHB-26

George Gershwin first encountered the player piano when he was six, and it impressed him powerfully. “To this very day,” he later wrote, “I can’t hear [that] tune without picturing myself outside the arcade on 125th Street, standing there barefoot and in overalls, drinking it all in avidly.” When he was about ten, he taught himself piano on a friend’s player, following the keys as it pounded away, and he went on to make 130 rolls of his music between 1916 and 1927. The rolls are not an exact record of his playing; they were carefully prepared both to accommodate inherent limitations in the technology and to take advantage of its strengths, such as the ability to hit more notes than ten fingers can cover. They are in fact a distinct form of the music, and they sound terrific here. Artis Wodehouse, a Gershwin authority, has painstakingly transcribed them to play on a nine-foot Yamaha Disklavier concert grand piano—a modern CD-ROM player piano—editing them in the process to improve the performances and then recording them in full digital sound. The results are stunning, from an ebullient “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want’Em”—Gershwin’s first published song—to a seductively bluesy “On My Mind the Whole Night Long” and a rousing full-length “Rhapsody in Blue.” The real highlight, though, is all sixteen and a half minutes of “An American in Paris,” arranged not by Gershwin but by Frank Milne, who was the Aeolian Company’s star editor. Shorn of its familiar orchestral trappings and given an arrangement so complex and magnificent it is played on two Yamaha grands, the piece swaggers and swings anew. This album has become an instant bestseller, and deservedly so.

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