GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (complete opera) – Alvy Powell, Marquita Lister, Lester Lynch, Robert Mack/ Nashville Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Blair Children’s Chorus, Tennessee State University Band/ John Mauceri, conductor – Decca

GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (complete opera) – Alvy Powell, Marquita Lister, Lester Lynch, Robert Mack/ Nashville Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Blair Children’s Chorus, Tennessee State University Band/ John Mauceri, Conductor – Decca B0007431-02, (2 discs) 72:12 & 72:43 ***:

I can’t think of a more politically incorrect recording to come out for some time, and it makes me feel a little dishonest to list this as “complete” in the heading. What the ever-original Mr. Mauceri has done is to provide us with the score of Porgy as it was actually presented to those lucky theater-goers at the 1935 premiere. And in doing so he flaunts the thesis that this is actually a venture into accurate historical reconstruction that not only gives us what Gershwin did on that night, but also what he wanted in terms of future presentations.

This is bound to cause controversy, but then this opera has hardly been far from it since its opening night. There are a lot of corrections in this version, mostly inaudible in those numbers that are familiar to most people, but some large chunks of the score are now gone—about half an hour’s worth altogether. Notes have been changed, after careful consideration of the score, and tempo adjustments added, based on both the original markings in the score and Gershwin’s own markings for opening night. The problem comes in knowing what to accept as an integral part of the opera, and what to reject based on the expediencies of the first night’s run.

For instance, the 8:30 curtain time would have made it difficult for the patrons to watch a three and one-half hour opera and still make the 12:00 last train for home. Curbing 30 minutes helped solve that issue. Gershwin was concerned about his Porgy’s endurance during the pre-New York tour, so he cut the ‘Buzzard’s Song’ in order to try and save Todd Duncan’s voice. One must question whether these concerns would be as prominent in Gershwin’s mind when it came to setting down the score in perpetuity. Yet the composer was known to do a lot of pruning, as his other works demonstrate.

But there are some plusses: Porgy has always seemed to me to need a “tightening up” in its dramatic presentation, and Mauceri accomplishes that here. The opera moves much better, though many will reject this who have gotten used to the existing complete recordings. And some of the tempo markings feel so much more “right” in this recording. Take the opening—while Simon Rattle blows by at about a quarter = 140, Mauceri insists on the Gershwin-marked quarter = 112 and it makes a world of difference, especially in the articulation in the strings. ‘Summertime’ for Rattle is more a dirge than an atmosphere-setter, and Mauceri moves it along at a far more rapid pace to excellent effect.

In the end, no matter what side of the argument you come down on, it is the music that matters most, and this is where the new recording does not quite measure up to the older ones. Though Rattle’s blowsy and Broadway-lit Glyndebourne reading is now 20 years old, Willard White and Cynthia Haymon in the lead roles are nothing short of perfection. The Royal Phil is surely tested by Rattle’s fervency, but the recording is a very fine one. The sound there is more distant and wide (Mauceri is closer in and drier in a still-excellent recording), but a pleasure to listen to. The Houston Opera recording that started the modern day Porgy-obsession is still available (RCA), and for many it remains the benchmark for its spirit and perfection in pacing. Unavailable (but certain to reappear) is Maazel’s Cleveland recording from 1976 (London), chilly in spots and rather clinical, but absolutely the best played, setting a standard that will probably not be passed in the future.

The Nashville orchestra acquits itself very well, with a feeling for the idiom and sounding as good as any but the Cleveland, though a little smaller in size. The principle singers are given no bios in the notes, which is inexcusable, but generally they are not as good as the other recordings, with some vocal strain showing in spots, some irritating hamming-it-up (Sportin’ Life’s ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ a case in point), and a confused case of accents and inflections marring the whole. The choruses are very good. I really think that most people in this age of completeness will want every note Gershwin wrote, whether he would have kept them or not—and we will never know the answer to that one. But Mauceri has made an interesting recording that will get people talking, and Porgy certainly deserves the attention.

— Steven Ritter
 

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