This piece was introduced by George Gershwin, piano, and the New York Symphony Society conducted by Walter Damrosch in Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925.
Gershwin was commissioned to write this concerto by the New York Symphony Society, a project set in motion by the society's musical director, Walter Damrosch. On April 17, 1925, a contract was signed by which the composer received $500 to produce the concerto and to play with it with the orchestra in seven concerts (only six concerts actually took place). After signing this agreement, Gershwin joked self-consciously that he would have to find some books that would tell them what concerto was.
He began sketching musical ideas for the piece in May, while he was in London working on the British production of his musical comedy Tell Me More. Composing began in earnest on July 22 and the work, which he was tentatively calling New York Concerto, came into being in his New York city townhouse, in a rented suite at the Whitehall Hotel (at Broadway and 110th St.), and that a retreat in Chautauqua in upstate New York—where his friend Ernest Hutchinson taught master piano classes. The first movement (Allegro) was written in July, the second (Adagio/Andante con moto) in August and September, and the third (Allegro Agitato) in September. Gershwin's initial setting was for two pianos and then he began the orchestration, which took all of October and was finished on November 10.
By the terms of the contract, the composition was not to be publicly performed until December 3. But that did not rule out private performances, and Gershwin could not resist playing it for everyone within earshot. On August 27 he gave a solo rendition of the first movement at a party for the Noel Coward. In September, he and his friend William Daley played the two-piano version of the first two movements for friends.
Shortly before the official premiere, Gershwin elected to call the piece, simply, Concerto in F. This was because of his wish that it be listened to as pure music and not be fettered with evocative titles or subtitles. As he later told Isaac Goldberg, his biographer:
“Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident. Well, I went out…to show them that there was plenty more where that had come from. I made up my mind to do a piece of absolute music. The Rhapsody, as its title implied, was a blues impression. The Concerto would be unrelated to any program.
Prior to the start of the formal rehearsals with the New York Symphony Society, Gershwin hired a 60- piece orchestra for a run-through at the Globe Theatre. Daily conducted and Walter Damrosch was in attendance. As a result of this test, some 58 measures were cut from the first movement, 30 from the second, and 16 from the third. Then came the Carnegie Hall rehearsals with Damrosch conducting and Gershwin playing with a pipe clenched between his teeth as fellow songwriter Philip Charig turned the pages for him.
At the December 3 concert, the work was preceded by Glazunov's Third Symphony, Rabaud's Suite Anglais, and an intermission. Then came the first public performance of this, his second symphonic work—and, with it, a split decision by the music critics. Among Gershwin's admirers was Samuel Chotzinoff, who wrote, “He alone of all those writing the music of today...expresses us." But Lawrence Gilman, who had written of weeping over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony of the Rhapsody in Blue, said that the Concerto was “conventional, trite, and at its worst the little dull." Later, other doubts would be expressed by impresario Sergei Diaghilev (“good jazz but bad Liszt"), composer Sergei Prokofiev (“a succession of 32 bar courses"), and Gershwin himself (who said that the structure was too sequential and that the first movement was in “sonata form…but").
It took quite some time for the Concerto in F to catch on. Gershwin always programmed it in concerts devoted to his works and Oscar Levant championed it throughout his career (playing portions of it in two films: You Were Meant For Me in 1948, and An American in Paris in 1951) but, in Gershwin's lifetime, the only available recording was one by Roy Bargy and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra—one that used a new orchestration by Ferde Grofé.
The European premiere of the piece came on May 29, 1928 with Dmitri Tiomkin at the piano accompanied by Vladimir Golschmann and the Theatre National de l'opera of Paris.
To Gershwin's great pleasure, two movements of the Concerto in F were played by Harry Kaufman with Fritz Reiner at the 1932 Venice International Festival of Contemporary Music. Gershwin was very impressed by the fact that, due to popular demand, Kaufman and Reiner repeated the finale—something that had not happened at a premier (as Gershwin proudly told friends) since the 1875 Boston premiere of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto.
Gershwin never formally recorded his piano concerto. However, he can be heard playing a portion of the second movement in a recording made from an April 7, 1935 radio broadcast. One should be aware of the fact that, after the composer's death, the orchestrations of many of his works, including the Concerto in F, were revised by Frank Campell-Watson and others. Because record jackets and notes rarely say if the recordings inside bears tampered orchestrations, it is important to obtain a version featuring pianist Oscar Levant, who always recorded the piece with the composer's original instrumentation. Levant's recording with Andre Kostelanetz conducting the New York Philharmonic is available. At a September 8, 1937 George Gershwin Memorial concert, Levant played the first movement, accompanied by Charles Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. That performance is available on record.
Possibly the finest recording ever made of Gershwin's piano concerto was the one by André Previn (pianist and conductor) and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1971. André Previn, by the way, is Charles Previn's cousin.