, November 2004
"Hot on the heels of their 1935-42 selections Naxos now gives us the almost complete Porgy and Bess, presided over by Lehman Engel in 1951. In addition there are some extracts sung by Stevens and Merrill, which make a fine bonus. But the focus is very firmly on that Columbia set, one which has fairly recently been issued on Sony Masterworks.
This was a set ahead of the game when it came to matters of spatial separation and sound effects. I’ve heard it said that the orchestra was recessed, maybe as a result of Columbia’s experimentation with a kind of 3D perspective (i.e. in the dice scene –which leaps out of the speakers over half a century later) but there’s no real sign of it here and I doubt, though I’ve not had the opportunity to listen to the Sony CD transfer, whether that was the case there either. On the contrary, voices are close up, the orchestra sounds full of colour and as for the singers, they are amongst the most convincing line-up that Porgy has enjoyed on disc. Lehman Engel was a first call for this set and his extensive theatrical experience is quite evident; he doesn’t linger when it comes to tempi, either, and reserves moments of adrenalin to be unleashed for their full vigorous worth.
That cast includes Lawrence Winters who studied with the original Porgy, Todd Duncan, who you’ll find on the other Naxos disc. His role is perfectly pitched, in terms of expression and nuance, and complementary to that of Duncan, his great predecessor. His Bess is Camilla Williams who was, like Winters, for a time a member of the New York City Opera. She has a fine Puccinian sized voice and is impressive vocally – though once or twice in the spoken dialogue she can be rather high falutin.’ Sporting Life is Avon Long who seems to have owned this role for over a decade; he starred in the 1942 revival. Try his Act II Scene I Lo,Bess, Goin’ to the Picnic and you’ll know immediately whether he’s your type of Sporting Life; some may feel he overplays his hand here but to me his insinuating and greasy unctuousness are done with vivid characterisation. Maybe a trio such as the Act II Scene I Oh I’m a-goin’ out to the blackfish banks can sounds just too clean and art house – but it still works in the context of the set as a whole – and for this the firm but never insensitive direction of Engel is much to be praised. The smaller parts and speaking roles are all taken with personable richness and are chosen with care. The acoustic properties, as I said earlier, are in your face – and that’s a good thing.
The RCA extracts are a plush alternative with twenty-five or so minutes recorded the previous year. Merrill was an outstanding baritone and Stevens a Met stalwart but their extracts sit at something of a hysterical-operatic tangent to the Engel performance. And that one really does still command admiration and inquisitive listening."