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Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, December 2004

"Opera, folk opera or musical? All these descriptions have been used to describe Porgy and Bess. Personally, I think ones answer is largely determined by early seeing or hearing experiences. Currently that experience will likely to be of an video or sound version of the outstanding 1980s Glyndebourne production conducted by Simon Rattle and recorded by EMI. Earlier generations may well have been influenced towards the operatic view by the 1950s highlights included here as an appendix and which include Risë Stevens and Robert Merrill, star singers at the New York Metropolitan Opera. It was later recordings conducted by Lorin Maazel (Decca) and John DeMain (RCA) that really focused the issue of opera or musical. Until Rattle’s Glyndebourne performance, Maazel’s recording held foremost position with a clear view of the work as opera. Both Rattle and Maazel’s recordings had Willard White as a superbly characterised and resonant voiced Porgy. DeMain with a cast that had been a great success on Broadway and elsewhere in the U.S.A. presents the alternative view with equal success.

With the benefit of hindsight it is hard to understand the difficulty Porgy and Bess had in establishing the place it now enjoys in the repertoire although colour prejudice in America could have played a part. Premiered in 1935 to mixed reviews it ran for 124 performances; a failure by musical comedy standards. There were various revivals in the 1940s but Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother, who had helped write the lyrics, and Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records of America, sought to record a version not linked to any stage production but more clearly focused on the music and singing. The main recording on this Naxos issue was the result. Camilla Williams as Bess and Lawrence Winters as Porgy sang at the New York City Opera. Avon Long who had vaudeville background and later made a considerable career in musicals plays the role of Sporting Life, so superbly sung and portrayed by Damon Evans for Rattle. This 1951 combination of singers together with the vitality of Lehman Engel’s conducting helped to re-launch Porgy on the world. Of equal importance in this respect was the Everyman Opera Company of New York. This production featured a young Leontyne Price as a voluptuously sexy Bess and William Warfield as Porgy. Price went on to be the first fully accepted black singer at the Met and the non-pareil Aida and Leonora (in Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino) of the theatre and her generation. This production toured America and Europe to acclaim and included a visit to Cold War Russia no less. That production, like this recording, succeeded in blending the energy of musical comedy with the vocal richness of opera.

The juxtaposition on this issue of full operatic voices in the appendix, where there is transposition to suit each singer’s voice, allows comparison of the work’s evergreen tunes. But that is hardly the point. The main recording here fulfils its objective of combining the energy of musical comedy with the vocal richness of opera and is thoroughly recommendable. It is not in direct competition with either Rattle or DeMain. Its own virtues stand it in good stead compared with either view. It is also a lot cheaper and provides an affordable opportunity for those who do not know the work as well as those who have one or other of the versions referred to. It has been admirably re-mastered by Mark Obert-Thorn. With its two approaches to the work, it is excellent value albeit that the appendix (CD 2 trs 23-30) gives only a brief glimpse of the operatic view of the work. There is a brief leaflet essay and track-related synopsis."

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, 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."

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