Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

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WORKS: Porgy and Bess
PERFORMER: William Warfield, Leontyne Price, Cab Calloway, John McCurry, Joseph James, Helen Colbert, Howard Roberts, Helen Thigpen, Leslie Scott, Moses Lamar, William Weasey, Walter Riemann, Helen Dowdy, Ray Yates; Eva Jessye Choir; RIAS-Unterhaltungsorchester/Alex


There can’t be many off-air opera recordings which shed as much light on a work’s performing history as this remarkable Porgy and Bess. It was made during the Berlin run of the famous 1952-3 European tour, sponsored by the US State Department, of a production by Robert Breen, with an all-black company under the work’s original conductor Alexander Smallens. This is not George Gershwin’s opera, as he published it even before the 1935 first night: for that, Simon Rattle’s classic Glyndebourne set remains indispensable. There are cuts everywhere, small and large, numbers are shifted from one scene to another, new links are created between scenes, and great swathes of Gershwin’s recitative are replaced by spoken dialogue, over music or even without it, sometimes turning serious episodes into comic routines. Moreover, the chorus’s exuberantly spontaneous spoken reactions and interactions frequently threaten to overwhelm the sung lines and the valiant Berlin orchestra. But this same ‘rhubarbing’ also contributes to a sense of teeming community life which is wholly in keeping with Gershwin’s vision of a ‘folk opera’. The chorus sings with precision and fervour, and there are characterful performances in the many smaller roles. The young Leontyne Price shows signs of her future greatness as Bess, her new husband William Warfield makes a virile Porgy, and Cab Calloway does a star turn as Sportin’ Life. And altogether this recording, refurbished in startlingly immediate mono sound, is both a fascinating document and thoroughly enjoyable in its own right. Anthony Burton