Martin James Bartlett joined by Joshua Weilerstein and London Philharmonic Orchestra set to present two celebrated rhapsodies for piano and orchestra
The two principal works on this album hold a special significance for Martin James Bartlett. In 2014, when he was 17, the British pianist’s televised performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini brought him victory as BBC Young Musician of the Year. The following year he made his debut at the BBC Proms playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The two celebrated rhapsodies were composed some 10 years apart. Rachmaninov reportedly attended the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in New York in 1924, when Gershwin played the solo part with Paul Whiteman, the so-called ‘King of Jazz’, and his orchestra. The Russian composer’s Piano Concerto No 4, completed in 1926, is often thought to reflect Gershwin’s groundbreaking classical-jazz fusion. When the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was premiered in Baltimore in 1934, Rachmaninov himself played the solo part beside the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski. Partnering Martin James Bartlett on this recording are the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the young conductor Joshua Weilerstein, a native of New York State.
The term ‘rhapsody’ suggests a certain freedom of expression, and for Martin James Bartlett “it usually refers to a work being episodic in nature. This makes it a very visceral listening experience. All these contrasting elements makes the music very diverse in character, though still maintaining a central theme throughout. This contributes to the structure whilst making the piece seem improvisatory and spontaneous.” Comparing Rachmaninov’s and Gershwin’s rhapsodies, he says: “There is something very similar about their lyrical qualities. Variation 18 of the Rachmaninov rhapsody [its most celebrated episode] is a slowed-down inversion of the main theme, whereas the luscious middle section of the Gershwin is an augmented variation of a theme that reoccurs at the end.”
The two main works are complemented by seven shorter pieces for solo piano: Rachmaninov’s Polka de W.R, Gershwin’s Songbook versions of ‘The Man I Love’ and ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, and arrangements by the virtuoso American pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010) of two songs by Rachmaninov (‘Vocalise’ and ‘Where beauty dwells’) and two songs by Gershwin (‘Fascinating Rhythm’ and ‘Embraceable You’). Wild also had a special connection with Rhapsody in Blue: in 1942 Arturo Toscanini invited him to perform Gershwin’s piece with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, making Wild the first American-born soloist to appear with the formidable Italian maestro.
“It’s a joy to play pieces that have been arranged for the piano by great pianists themselves,” says Bartlett. “Their extensive knowledge of the piano’s technical possibilities and colours brings these transcriptions to new levels. They go far beyond being normal arrangements. It’s wonderful to see the individual elements that they have brought to these works, and Wild inherits incredible romantic lyricism from Rachmaninov.”
When he played Rhapsody in Blue at the BBC Proms, The Times wrote that "The wit and colour in Martin James Bartlett’s playing was thrilling," while The Daily Telegraph noted that he “brought maximum feeling to the music and played with astonishing delicacy and punch.” His first Warner Classics recording, an ambitious solo recital called Love and Death, was released in 2019. Its programme comprised works by Liszt, Granados, Bach (in arrangements by Busoni and Myra Hess) and Prokofiev. The Times, in a 5-star review, praised Bartlett’s ability “to think long-term, rather than give in to immediate excitement” and “his unaffected delicacy of touch, colour and tone … Everything works to illuminate the music." BBC Music Magazine spoke of “Bartlett's very classy pianism ... there's a dark, cushioned depth of tone, beautifully layered voicing, and a special eloquence … the breathtaking Prokofiev … overflows with virtuosity, atmosphere and colour …This expressive sophistication could bestow on Bartlett a firm place in the current new golden age of young pianists who are inspired by the individuality and musical integrity of the early 20th-century greats.”