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Recordings

Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
18 Jan 2006

GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess

So EMI has declared this 1988 Porgy and Bess to be one of the “Great Recordings of the Century.” That may settle the issue for many – but not all.

George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, Damon Evans, London Philharmonic, Glyndebourne Chorus, Simon Rattle (cond.)

EMI 7243 4 76836 2 6 [3CDs]

 

The CD booklet essay (by Richard Osborne) describes the mid-80s as a time when Gershwin’s opera finally found widespread acceptance and acknowledgement of its greatness. The Metropolitan Opera presented its first production about this time, under James Levine, and Glyndebourne found a committed exponent in conductor Simon Rattle. After the success of the latter production, Rattle took most of the cast into the studio to record the opera.

No doubt, as a recording done with a committed, talented cast in modern sound, Rattle’s Porgy and Bess has much to recommend it. Willard White conveys Porgy’s passion and dignity with strength and taste. Harolyn Blackwell brings her luscious, evocative soprano to Clara, who sings the classic “Summertime.” Cynthia Haymon, a “discovery” of this production, does not possess the most distinctive voice, but her Bess retains our sympathy even as she gives into her past and abandons the man who rescued her from it.

On the other hand, Damon Evans’s Sporting Life overemphasizes the unappealing nature of the character with a tenor that tends to grate on the ear, especially as it extends above the staff. Furthermore, the more trained tinge to his voice works against his characterization.

However, few recordings, “great” or otherwise, have casts of unalloyed greatness in every role. Two issues regarding Rattle’s Porgy and Bess, one under his control and the other not, make your reviewer reluctant to agree to EMI’s marketing gambit for this re-issue.

The recorded sound, described on the CD case as remastered, presents an odd acoustic where voices and orchestral forces never seem to blend, and the chorus sounds even further removed. Perhaps this is partly due to the low levels set for playback, which meant for this listener that the volume had to be turned very high for satisfactory listening, and then climaxes came on much too strong. Besides being disappointing in itself, the sound quality affects the drama, making too much sound studiously theatrical rather than immediate and real.
Rattle himself poses the other problem. No man can – or should be able to – rise to the top music director position in classical music (Rattle heads the Berlin Philharmonic) without an amazing talent. This Porgy and Bess offers much evidence of that talent. Ensemble is immaculate, climaxes roar up out of the score like tidal waves, and individual details are lovingly presented.

However…and the listener’s bias may, admittedly, play a role here – nothing really sounds authentic. There is no hint of swing, especially in the moments that most clearly call for it. Tempos often feel just that tad too slow, producing a regrettable sense of drag. All your reviewer could think was, “Why didn’t Bernstein record this?”

A less than satisfactory recording cannot spoil Gershwin’s immortal score. For many people, however, that score’s existence remains in the supreme versions of individual numbers done by great popular singers through the decades. I couldn’t be without Sarah Vaughan’s Summertime or My Man’s Gone Now, and when I want to hear a lot of the score, the highlights recording from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald calls.

Acoustics, as well as an appreciation for certain conductors, tending to be a personal taste, there may well be many, many fans for whom Rattle’s Porgy and Bess truly deserves its appellation, “Great recording of the century.” For them, the reissue is here, in EMI’s fine packaging.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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