This new recording of Porgy and Bess is based on an “authentic” edition, one that gives us “Gershwin’s final word” and that represents “the way Gershwin intended his opera to be handed down.” Among other things, this recording “restores Gershwin’s cuts.” Given that the performance is more than a half hour shorter than, say, the Rattle and Maazel recordings, you might well wonder what music has in fact been restored. To understand what’s going on, a bit of backstory may be helpful.
As John Mauceri, Charles Hamm, and Wayne Shirley point out in the trio of essays that accompanies this release, Gershwin published the score of his opera before the first performance; during the rehearsals leading up to its Broadway opening, theRead more composer (in consultation with director Rouben Mamoulian) incorporated a number of changes, some minor, some substantial. Following the initial run and some touring productions, the work was revised by a variety of other hands to conform to the conventions of the traditional American musical, with much of the music replaced by dialogue; when Porgy returned to the repertoire as the through-composed opera that Gershwin had envisioned, the published score generally served as the principal source. Now, inspired by Hamm’s research (see “The Theatre Guild Production of ‘Porgy and Bess,’” Journal of the American Musicological Society, Volume 40:3: 495–532) and grounded in Shirley and Mauceri’s subsequent exploration of the primary sources—including the orchestral parts from the first production—we have what can make a plausible claim to being the first account of Gershwin’s revised score since 1938. Or, to be more precise, the first accurate account of the revised score, since the pioneering Lehman Engel recording was more or less based on the 1935 revised edition, although without the scholarly rigor of this one. Or, to be more precise still, the first accurate account of the revised musical score, since the language has been touched up—as it has been for decades—to avoid offending.
So what are the primary differences between this score and the more familiar one? First, there are numerous local changes affecting orchestration, tempo, and other musical details. Second, there are bits of music that you won’t find in the published version. Some additions are minor (an extra four measures before the usual opening of act I, scene 2; two bars of wordless chorus inserted at rehearsal 4 in act III, scene 1), but others are more substantial. The storm music at the end of act II, scene 3 is significantly extended; in addition, there’s a brief “occupational humoresque” at the beginning of the last scene, although it doesn’t originate with Gershwin himself. As Shirley puts it, “Gershwin and Mamoulian also imported from the straight-play version of Porgy Mamoulian’s device for the opening of the final scene: Catfish Row comes alive with a series of noises—snores, brooms sweeping, hammers pounding, carpet beatings, children skipping rope—which coalesces to a rhythmic pattern out of which the music emerges.”
And what about those restored cuts? Well, it turns out that when Hamm talks about “restoring cuts,” he’s not using the phrase the way it’s usually used, to mean putting back music that’s traditionally been cut. Rather, he’s using it to mean removing music that has traditionally (at least, for the last 30 years) been incorporated in recordings. And indeed, the biggest differences between this edition and the nowadays more familiar one is found in that half hour of abridgements, which rip out material ranging from a single measure to whole numbers, including the stunning polyphonic prayer at the beginning of act II, scene 3 and, even more strikingly, the “Buzzard Song.”
I have the greatest respect for Hamm and for the archival work behind this release—and only wish it had been presented simply as one historically significant version of the score rather than as the final word on Gershwin’s intentions. Hamm claims, in the JAMS article, that “Gershwin was fully involved in all decisions to make cuts in the music of Porgy and Bess up to the time of the New York opening” (p. 507)—but every composer, and indeed every writer, knows the difference between “being involved in” and “being satisfied with,” much less “being enthusiastic about.” It’s fairly clear, even from the partisan narratives provided in Decca’s booklet, that many of Gershwin’s revisions stemmed not from formal, dramatic, or musical concerns, but from more mundane matters that may have been relevant under particular circumstances, but that no longer apply, especially on a recording. As Hamm put it in his article, for instance, some of the changes were made “to tailor the piece to the talents and limitations of its cast” (p. 524, italics added). In particular, once Porgy was slated to fit a Broadway—rather than an operatic—performance schedule, it became increasingly important to shorten the opera to preserve the voices. Roles that a singer can manage once or twice in a week become impossible when sung every day.
Would Gershwin really have snipped out “The Buzzard Song”—arguably Porgy’s most powerful aria—if he knew his Porgy could manage the part with the passage included? It’s hard to know for sure. But Gershwin’s decision to include that number in the recording of excerpts he supervised in 1936 (that is, after it had been cut from the Broadway score) certainly casts doubt on the claim that an edition that leaves it out, as this new one does, represents “the way Gershwin intended his opera to be handed down.” Hamm argues for maintaining all of the cuts because it’s hard, in retrospect, to distinguish between changes that were simply pragmatic from those that were artistically motivated. But while his principle is right—it is difficult to sort out Gershwin’s textual changes—his conclusion seems flawed. In fact, the only logical conclusion is that we’ll never know, for sure, “the way Gershwin intended his opera to be handed down.”
Of course, for many listeners, editorial claims to priority are secondary: the real question is whether the edition really works. My guess is that there will be some controversy. In some spots, the compression gives the music added punch. One can argue, for instance, that the original opening is too long, and that the shortening (both the removal of the Jasbo Brown music and the cuts in the crap-shooting scene) moves us more quickly to the dramatic heart of the piece. On the other hand, the cuts in the final scene seem to me to give the conclusion a slapdash quality—for full dramatic effect, Porgy’s emotional trajectory needs more time to register.
In the end, though, this recording will stand or fall on the quality of the performance—and here there are few serious complaints. Alvy Powell may not have quite the authority of Willard White—but he’s got a gorgeous voice, and his subtlety of timbre and his finely judged inflections of pitch and rhythm give Porgy real depth. Except in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (a song that has accumulated campy excess over the years—it would be interesting to know something about the sources for the variants heard here), Robert Mack is less ostentatiously sleazy than many others who have taken on Sporting Life, an interpretative choice that makes his ability to lure Bess away all the more believable. Lester Lynch gives surprising complexity to Crown: the flashes of heroic self-confidence behind the violence, coupled with the occasional hints of self-doubt, help us understand that Bess’s five years with him have not simply been the result of cowardice in the face of his brutality. Marquita Lister is not quite on their level as Bess—she’s a bit too stiff, not quite sensual enough; still, her voice is an extremely attractive one, and she inhabits the part more fully as the opera moves along. The other parts are all well cast, all the way down to a magnificent Strawberry Woman and an equally impressive Crab Man.
Mauceri conducts with energy and conviction, easily outclassing the relatively flat Maazel—and if the chorus is a touch ragged in one or two spots, they share his spirit. The Nashville Symphony, which has moved up steadily in the ranks of American orchestras, plays with the brightness and panache we’ve come to expect from them over the last few years. The sound is a touch glaring in the climaxes—but it’s otherwise impressive. Forced to choose a single recording, I’d probably stick with the Rattle, especially since its three discs are no more expensive than Decca’s two. But if you buy this new recording, you won’t be disappointed—unless, of course, you’re waiting for the “Buzzard Song.”
Porgy and Bessby George Gershwin Performer:
Jeremiah Cooper (),
Alvy Powell (Bass Baritone),
Uzee Brown (Baritone),
Marquita Lister (Soprano),
Calvin Lee (Tenor),
Barron Coleman (Tenor),
Tiffany Nicole Wharton (Mezzo Soprano),
Richard Daniel (),
Justin Lee Miller (Baritone),
Bart LeFan (),
Paul Bracy (),
Chauncey Packer (Tenor),
Robert Mack (Tenor),
Leonard Rowe (Baritone),
Linda Williams (Mezzo Soprano),
Nicole Cabell (Soprano),
Monique McDonald (Soprano),
Lester Lynch (Baritone),
Talmage M. Watts ()
Nashville Symphony Orchestra,
Nashville Symphony Chorus,
Blair Children's Chorus members
Period: 20th Century Written: 1935; USA Venue: Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville, TN Length: 144 Minutes 55 Secs. Language: English Notes: Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville, TN (02/26/2006 - 01/03/2006)
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
UnexpectedJune 28, 2014By James G. Prunty (Taos, NM)See All My Reviews"Since this is a rendition of the original 1935 recording, I was expecting it to far exceed anything of recent origin. Instead I found it to be lacking in the way some of the songs were interpreted. Of course, this would represent the way Gershwin actually wrote it. Which means I prefer the modern interpretations, but, didn't realize it until I heard this recording."Report Abuse