Acclaimed pianist Jeffrey Biegel’s latest release Manhattan Intermezzo (Naxos) celebrates classical works by Duke Ellington, Neil Sedaka, Keith Emerson and George Gershwin, whose famed composition “Rhapsody in Blue” is presented in a most surprising way. Keyboard magazine spoke to Biegel about this fresh take on a legendary piece.
On your new album Manhattan Intermezzo, you seem to be playing a version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that most people may not know about.
Yes. I have played “Rhapsody in Blue” for my whole life. But in 1997, a friend of mine who is a musicologist named Alicia Zizzo, called me. She said, “I’m preparing the solo piano version of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and I’d like to bring it to you to get another pair of eyes on it." That version took all of the piano and orchestra parts and put them together along with Gershwin’s own playing from [player] piano rolls and the original manuscript. So she brought it to me and a few measures in I said, “Wait a minute – where did you get this?” Then I got to another section and I said, “And where did you find this?” And she said, “It’s all in the original manuscripts.” She was able to get permission from the Gershwin estate to excavate these scores from places like the Library of Congress.
What’s different in this newly assembled version?
Hearing this new version was remarkable. When people originally heard Gershwin play “Rhapsody in Blue,” they must have heard him play these parts from all of these different places. The ending is a little different than the original, but there are about 88 [different] measures of music scattered around that mostly affects the piano solo parts. The original orchestration was also different. It had originally been arranged for the Paul Whiteman band, whose arranger Ferde Grofé under Gershwin’s directive, used limited strings, brass and winds, drum set, timpani and piano. There would be parts in the score where Gershwin had written, “Wait for Nod.” [Laughs.] There’s actually an audio interview with Ferde Grofé on YouTube speaking about “Rhapsody in Blue” where he says that the famous love theme from “Rhapsody in Blue” was not the original theme that Gershwin presented. Grofé said that when Gershwin played what he originally had in mind for the piece, he said, “I’m not convinced. What else do you have?” Gershwin replied, “I don’t have anything else. I only had three weeks to write the piece!” Grofé responded, “Well, what else do you think you could put in there?” Gershwin started to fool around a little bit, and he played the familiar love theme, which he had written five years before. So Grofé thought about it overnight, and the next day he told Gershwin, “I couldn’t get that theme out of my head. I want to use it.” And that’s what became the famous theme from “Rhapsody in Blue.”
So the main difference in the version you play on your new album is the addition of extra piano parts?
Yes. There are all of these extra piano parts in there. I felt like they were the “connective tissue” the held the piece together. It became very fragmented without them, and I think it robbed the piece of its continuity. Alicia reminded me that the word “rhapsody” in Greek means “to sew together.” Now all of this connective tissue is sewn back together.
Naxos Backstage - Jeffrey Biegel on Rhapsody in Blue