Rhapsody in Blue | The Most Perfect Music I’ve Never Heard

George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is the first music that really moved me, as a child. I heard the Mantovani/Julius Katchen recording on our old stereo, back in the late ’50’s. Over the years, I’ve heard many different versions, some better than others. One of the best “flawed” versions was at the Peabody Book Store in Baltimore, performed as a solo piano piece by a guy who was a natural (but eccentric) performer.

I’ve never heard a perfect performance of the piece, however. That’s because the music itself is as perfect as I can imagine. We mere mortals can only approach what the composer ended up settling on, in his final revisions. When Gershwin first performed the piece with a jazz band, he actually improvised some parts. Since there was no recording of the performance, we’ll never know what that first attempt really sounded like.

The piece was first imagined on a train ride to New York. The rhythm of the train on the tracks inspired Gershwin, and he had most of the music in his head by the time he arrived. The absolutely original composition was for two pianos. He gave the music to an arranger, who scored it for a jazz band. Later arrangements included one for a symphony orchestra. The 1942 arrangement is the one most of us are familiar with.

Below are three versions I favor. The first is the Mantovani/Katchen version; the second, a loving arrangement for solo piano by a Russian (!); the third is the most popular version (featured in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”). The first two videos come in two parts, the final one is a complete 16-plus minute recording. If you listen to all of them, perhaps you’ll see what I mean: none are perfect, but together, they are purely transcendent.