GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (complete opera) – Jonathan Lemalu (Porgy), Isabelle Kabatu (Bess), Bibiana Nwobilo (Clara), Michael Forest (Sporting Life)/ Rodney Clarke (Jake)/ Arnold Schoenberg Choir/ Chamber Orch. of Europe/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt – RCA (3)

by | Nov 2, 2010 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (complete opera) – Jonathan Lemalu (Porgy), Isabelle Kabatu (Bess), Bibiana Nwobilo (Clara), Michael Forest (Sporting Life)/ Rodney Clarke (Jake)/ Angela Renee Simpson (Serena)/ Robert Alexander (Maria)/ Gregg Baker (Crown)/ Arnold Schoenberg Choir/ Chamber Orchestra of Europe/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor – RCA Red Seal 88697591762, (3 discs) 71:30, 63:18 & 41:03 ***:

Harnoncourt? Gershwin? The first thing I did when this arrived in the mail was to check for the presence of period instruments; that not being the case I moved on to the rest of the cast and crew. The COE is certainly able to play just about anything, and they prove themselves here as well. But the all-white Arnold Schoenberg Choir struck me as a little funny. I know that ever since the OJ Simpson trial we are not supposed to be able to tell the difference—at least over the phone (meaning over the speakers also?)—between black and white voices, but in this opera at least, occurring in the slums of Charleston—where dialect is heavy, as Gershwin spent so much time working on just this—does it make a difference? Well, I am really not sure. I don’t think I spent too much time wondering about the chorus as the Arnold Schoenberg Choir is one of the best in the world, but here I think they are working against two issues—English, and a specific idiom of English as well. For the most part they are fine, but for those used to other Porgys it might prove slightly noticeable.

What is very noticeable is the quality of the singing. Most of these folks are South Africans, which is fine, but none of them equals the very best on disc, probably from the Rattle or Maazel recordings. They are not bad—though Porgy has an irritating vibrato and almost sub-hearing sort of baritone, while Bess struggles with control as well—and I did not come away from this experience feeling that Porgy and Bess had somehow been ill-served. But neither did I come away with any feeling of revelation.

Recently I reviewed the set by John Mauceri and the Nashville Symphony which takes as its premise the post-Boston 1935 premiere and loses about 35-40 minutes of music from the warm-up production in Beantown. Harnoncourt is not quite so revisionist and opts to keep one of the most important arias, the Buzzard Song (originally cut because of fears of taxing the singer), and properly so because of its dramatic importance, and Harnoncourt has gone meticulously through the autograph score and put things in that were not found in the full or vocal scores. You probably won’t notice them. But you will notice the wonderful sounds made at the beginning of the final scene, a “symphony of noise” that brings on the morning; this too is found in the autograph but nowhere else, and is very effective.

Tempo-wise the conductor is more in line with Mauceri, who tried to follow the markings in the score with some degree of fidelity. But Harnoncourt, who in the notes holds to a firm belief that his upbringing and experiences taught him how to “swing”, doesn’t. He may think he is, but to me it sounds a little contrived, as if “now we are swinging” instead of just letting it happen. But I will admit that sometimes I enjoy a performance of Gershwin’s music that doesn’t try to add a degree of “jazz” to the interpretation—but not here. This is rather flat in the swing department, but there are other good things going that make up for it, especially the COE’s stunning playing.

We have yet to find the perfect modern Porgy and Bess; Houston Opera (RCA) is too puny in the strings and sounds too Broadway, despite some excellent efforts. Mauceri slights too much of the score (though his singers are better than here). Rattle is both guns going constantly though he does give us the complete score (as we should really have on a recording) and his singers are superb, as are Maazel’s in his fabulous Cleveland Orchestra recording, though some think him too four-square as well—I do not. Harnoncourt perhaps over-thinks this work even though he has some interesting ideas, but he should have given us the complete score (though it is close). In the end Porgy and Bess comes down to the singing—as do all operas—and this one does not top the others despite its many virtues. If you are collecting Porgy and Bess this is perfectly okay, but if you are looking for your first Porgy I would still stick with Maazel or Rattle for the compete score, and just pray that someone like Robert Spano sees fit to take this up on record; what a shame that Bernstein never did!

— Steven Ritter

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