About this Recording
8.110219-20 - GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (Original Cast Recordings) (1935-1942)
English 

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Porgy and Bess

Revolutionaries and their works are usually controversial in their time. They tend to be better appreciated in later years. So it was with George Gershwin and his landmark folk opera, Porgy and Bess.

The Gershwin saga has been told so many times and in so many ways that it would be superfluous to delve into it here. The point must be made, however, that Gershwin’s achievement seems all the greater as time moves us farther away from it. He was appreciated in many ways and at many junctures in his brilliant career, but never so greatly as after his passing. His importance was recognised by some perceptive souls soon after his death. After Jascha Heifetz had played a Gershwin composition at one of the regular chamber music sessions at the home of Columbia Pictures musical director Morris Stoloff, the legendary violinist said to his friends, "We should be ashamed that we didn’t appreciate this man more when he was here in our midst."

The same can be said about Porgy and Bess. It was not unappreciated at the time of its première in 1935. Unconventional for its time, it required the passage of time to be seen for what it is. This two-disc set gives us the opportunity to do just that. Nearly three-quarters of a century after Gershwin, together with with his brother, Ira, and the author DuBose Heyward, created it, Porgy and Bess has now acquired a lustre that for a time was buried in its core.

Myths about the show have developed. One is that it was trounced when it first appeared. On close reading of the numerous reviews it received at the time, it is clear that it had some staunch admirers and some equally vehement detractors. For the most part, however, it was viewed as a work so different from the norm that even some attuned ears needed time to take it all in and render a fuller verdict at a later date.

One of the most revealing reviews of this musical saga of South Carolina’s Catfish Row was delivered by the composer and critic Virgil Thomson on the show’s revival in 1941, four years after Gershwin’s death. He wrote, "Porgy and Bess is a strange case. It has more faults than any work I have ever known by a reputable composer. There are faults of taste, faults of technique and grave miscalculations about theatrical effect…. [Gershwin] didn’t know much about aesthetics and he couldn’t orchestrate for shucks; but his strength was as the strength of ten because his musical heart was really pure."

The present release also contains purity. It presents recordings of Porgy and Bess made immediately after its unveiling and for the first ten years of its life. It enables the listener to go back to that time. With these recordings restored and gathered together for the first time, revisionist history can be eliminated and it is possible to imagine how the score would have sounded to listeners of the 1930s and 1940s. Listening to other works of this period will only help reinforce the unconventional nature of Porgy and Bess.

The first disc brings together the numerous original cast recordings made between 1935 and 1942. Perhaps it would be better to say recordings made with members of the original cast and orchestra. Some members of the original cast were not included and numbers were often assigned to artists who did not perform them in the original production, but they have a flavour of their time that makes that all inconsequential.

While Decca had many of its popular artists record the songs in a disjointed fashion soon after the show’s opening, the label waited five years before attacking the work in a major way. The wait was worth while. Credit for finally embarking on the then ambitious task of recording the score as a self-contained work, rather than just a series of random sides, goes to the label’s visionary and courageous founder, Jack Kapp. Few others in the recording industry have advanced the concept of the home recording to the extent that he did. Porgy and Bess benefited immensely from Kapp’s enthusiasm for the score.

Porgy and Bess was Decca’s first original cast album, recorded in 1940, long before Oklahoma!, which is commonly regarded as the first original cast album. Earlier albums, such as Show Boat and The Band Wagon, used cast members with studio or dance orchestras, not the original pit orchestras. For the four 12" discs, Decca brought the cast members Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, the Eva Jessye Choir and the conductor Alexander Smallens into the studio to record what turned out to be Volume One only. The three 10" sides for the second volume were recorded in 1942 following the show’s west coast revival and included the members of that production.

Just before the recording of the sides for Volume Two, Decca recorded an album of Porgy and Bess Song Hits for Dancing, with Leo Reisman’s Orchestra and vocals by 1941 cast members Avon Long and Helen Dowdy. These were listed in the Decca catalogue as Porgy and Bess Volume Three. They lack the subtlety of the sides in the other volumes, but contain some exciting performances, especially those of Avon Long.

Interesting but not quite on the same mark as the Decca recordings are the two sides recorded with original cast member Edward Matthews, backed by the dance band of Leo Reisman. One gets the feeling that Brunswick was hedging its bets by combining a proven popular band with a black artist who was relatively unknown to most record buyers of the day.

The second disc features the first contemporary recordings of the score. It begins with what were actually the first commercial recordings, as well. These were the set of highlights made by Victor with the Metropolitan Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, under the direction of the show’s original conductor, Alexander Smallens. It is reported that the original chorus was also used, but that has never been confirmed. Inexplicably, the Victor stalwart Nathaniel Shilkret substituted for Smallens at the last of three October, 1935, sessions for this set.

While the racial content of Porgy and Bess was criticized by Duke Ellington at the time of its début, the great artist and social activist Paul Robeson had no qualms about the work. He gladly recorded four of the show’s songs for HMV during his period of English activity in the mid-to-late 1930s. They serve only to remind us of the vibrancy and depth of this sensitive singer.

Perhaps the most intriguing non-vocal treatment of the Porgy and Bess score was that of Jascha Heifetz. As previously mentioned, he was a great fan of Gershwin’s and lamented the fact that many of his contemporaries were late in joining him in his admiration. In 1945, he arranged and recorded six selections as part of an all-Gershwin 78 rpm set which also included the Three Preludes. Heifetz is accompanied by the pianist Emanuel Bay. These superb Heifetz sides offer proof that the works deserve rediscovery by contemporary violinists and performance in the recital halls of the 21st century.

Concluding this collection is the first recording of Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestral adaptation, Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. The work was commissioned in 1942 by Fritz Reiner, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Bennett, who had orchestrated many of Gershwin’s popular works, said that he followed Reiner’s ideas on sequence and instrumentation, but at the same time remained faithful to Gershwin’s harmonic and orchestral intentions. He hoped that he created a work that "Gershwin would like as a symphonic version of his music".

The Symphonic Picture is now a standard in the pops repertoire. Although it was first performed in the concert hall by Reiner on 5th February, 1943, he was deprived of the privilege of making the first recording. The American Federation of Musicians ban on recordings had descended in 1942. A year later, Victor and Columbia were still holding out against the union’s demands that its members be paid royalties for their recording work, but Decca and Capitol bolted and signed before their competitors in early 1944. The result was that Decca was able to beat Reiner to the first recording honours by having Alfred Wallenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic record the work in August, 1944. It is presented here as it was released on four Decca 12" sides, with the first seven minutes of the full work cut so as to fit on those four sides.

Recordings tell a lot about their times. This collection now becomes an important portrait of Porgy and Bess, the world into which it was born and the artists who were proud to present it to a sometimes confused audience. It is a much overdue slice of musical Americana.

Greg Gormick

Synopsis

Porgy and Bess was completed and first staged in 1935. The libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin was based on the former’s novel of 1925, Porgy. Set in the black quarter of Charleston, the opera, on which Gershwin spent two years, tells of the kindness of the crippled beggar Porgy for Bess, after her lover, Crown, has had to take flight, after killing Robbins in a gambling dispute. He protects Bess, particularly against the dope peddler Sportin’ Life. Bess meets Crown again during a picnic on Kittiwah Island and Porgy later kills him, to be arrested as a witness. Released, he finds that Bess has left for New York with Sportin’ Life and sets out in pursuit, as the ‘folk-opera’ comes to an end.

[1] Overture

Act I

Scene 1

[2] Everything is dark in Catfish Row. Only Jasbo Brown’s room can be seen, where he is playing the Blues, while couples are seen dancing. The lights dim and rise again to reveal Clara, nursing her baby and singing a lullaby, Summertime.

[3] The lights fade and rise again on a crap game, with Mingo and Sportin’ Life and the other men, including Jake and Robbins, the latter in spite of Serena’s objections.

[4] Jake holds his and Clara’s baby and sings him to sleep with A woman is a sometime thing. Porgy and others come in, and finally Crown and Bess. Crown is drunk and taking dope. He quarrels with Robbins and kills him, and, now sober, makes off. Sportin’ Life will not risk helping Bess, who seeks possible refuge with the cripple Porgy.

Scene 2

[5] The body of Robbins is laid out in Serena’s room, where mourners gather. Detectives arrest Peter the honey man, but everyone knows that Crown is guilty and will be so again. Serena mourns her man in My man’s gone now.

Act II

Scene 1

[6] Jake and the fishermen sing a rowing song It takes a long pull to get there. Clara warns Jake of the coming storms, if he puts to sea.

[7] Porgy is seen at the window, singing I got plenty o’ nuttin’. He is a changed man, since Bess went to live with him.

[8] Sportin’ Life makes up to Maria, who objects to his dope-peddling. Frazier the lawyer offers Bess a cheap divorce from Crown so that she can marry Porgy, and Mr Archdale offers to stand bail for Peter. A buzzard flies low. Porgy and the others recognise this as a bad omen.

[9] Sportin’ Life tries to persuade Bess to go away with him, but she refuses. They are overheard by Porgy, who warns him off. In Bess, you is my woman now, he affirms his love for her, as Bess and the others leave for their island picnic.

Scene 2

[10] There is general celebration, Sportin’ Life leads the way with his sceptical It ain’t necessarily so. They are rebuked by Serena.

[11] Crown appears, hiding on the island, and approaches Bess, warning her that he will soon be back. She tries to persuade him to find another girl in What you want wid’ Bess, but in the end he prevails, and they move away into the woods.

Scene 3

[12] Peter is out of prison, while Porgy worries about Bess, ill after being lost on the island. Serena prays for her. The strawberry woman is heard, with her street-cry, followed by Peter the honey man and the crab man.

[13] Bess appears, in a night gown, still feverish. Porgy knows she has been with Crown, but makes no claim on her. Bess needs his protection, as she makes clear in I loves you, Porgy.

Scene 4

A storm arises. In Serena’s room all pray anxiously, interrupted by Crown. Clara sees Jake’s upturned boat and rushes out, leaving her baby with Bess, while Crown takes action, as he goes telling Bess that he will return for her.

Act III

Scene 1

[14] All are gathered in the courtyard, mourning Jake, Clara and Crown, whom they believe lost. Sportin’ Life doubts this and looks forward to an encounter between Crown and Porgy. Bess can be heard singing Clara’s lullaby, while Crown steals back, to be killed by Porgy, who stabs and then strangles him.

Scene 2

[15] Porgy is taken in by the police as a possible witness of Crown’s murder. While he is detained, Sportin’ Life, in a Blues, There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York, persuades Bess to go away with him.

Scene 3

[16] A week later normal life continues in Catfish Row. Porgy is back from detention, bringing presents as a result of his gambling in prison. He seeks Bess, in Oh, Bess, oh where’s my Bess. Serena and Maria explain, in their own ways, what Bess has done.

[17] Porgy is left determined to find Bess again, with the song I’m on my way.

Keith Anderson

 

David Lennick

As a producer of CD reissues, David Lennick’s work in this field grew directly from his own needs as a broadcaster specialising in vintage material and the need to make it listenable while being transmitted through equalisers, compressors and the inherent limitations of AM radio. Equally at home in the classical, pop, jazz and nostalgia fields, Lennick describes himself as exercising as much control as possible on the final product, in conjunction with CEDAR noise reduction applied by Graham Newton in Toronto. As both broadcaster and re-issue producer, he relies on his own extensive collection as well as those made available to him by private collectors, the University of Toronto, Syracuse University and others.


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