Although there are a couple of pieces performed by George Gershwin himself, the rest of this two-CD, 41-track compilation, The Essential George Gershwin, is devoted to interpretations of his works. It's impressive in its stylistic and chronological sprawl, though inconsistent. Spanning 1925-2002 (though most of it predates 1970), the performances include instrumental classical pieces; pop vocals by Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme, and Tony Bennett; and jazzier covers by Miles Davis, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Alberta Hunter, and Cab Calloway. There are a number of cuts by artists more associated with the screen and stage than the recording studio, like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. And there are some rather unusual items here, like the 1960 cover of "It Ain't Necessarily So" by Aretha Franklin; the "Third Movement (Allegro Agitato)," from "Concerto in F," with Oscar Levant on piano (with the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York); and the whiter-than-white harmony pop of the Hi-Lo's on "Of Thee I Sing."
Many of Gershwin's major compositions are represented, including "I Got Rhythm," "Summertime," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "I've Got a Crush on You," "I Loves You Porgy" (seven of the selections are from Porgy and Bess), and "Rhapsody in Blue." If there are any drawbacks to this package, it's that with such a wide body of material that has been interpreted by so many artists in so many different ways, the final list is bound not to please everybody. As good as Aretha Franklin is, for instance, there have undoubtedly been better versions of "It Ain't Necessarily So," and as novel as the Hi-Lo's' arrangement of "Of Thee I Sing" is, it's so lightweight it treads the saccharine. Although the liner notes include a lot of original recording and release date information, it's unusually cagey in some respects. It doesn't include the label or format of release for numerous cuts. That leaves you to guess, though it's pretty obvious to many informed listeners, that much of this is, in fact, drawn from the Sony catalog: logical and convenient enough considering this is on Sony Classical/Legacy, but a condition that probably kept this retrospective from being as wide-ranging as it could have. Collectors might want to note the inclusion of four previously unreleased cuts: Benny Goodman's "Liza," Rosemary Clooney's "A Foggy Day," Fred Astaire's "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and Michael Feinstein's "Home Blues." It should be noted, though, that the version of "Rhapsody in Blue" with George Gershwin on piano combines his original 1925 recording with additional orchestration laid on in 1976, long after his death.