Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Gershwin
LABELS: RCA
WORKS: Porgy and Bess
PERFORMER: Jonathan Lemalu, Isabelle Kabatu, Bibiana Nwobilo, Michael Forest, Rodney Clarke, Angela Renée Simpson, Roberta Alexander, Gregg Baker, Previn Moore; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Chamber Orchestra of Europe/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt
CATALOGUE NO: RCA 88697591762

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Nikolaus Harnoncourt, now 80, reportedly fulfilled a lifelong ambition by conducting George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the 2009 Styriarte festival in Graz and on this recording.
 
He proves unexpectedly at ease in its idioms, eliciting some convincing swung rhythms from the incisive Chamber Orchestra of Europe and some fervent gospel singing from the Arnold Schoenberg Choir. And he has a strong team of soloists, all black as stipulated by the Gershwin estate though by no means all African-American.
 
As Porgy, Jonathan Lemalu displays a focused intensity which promises a successful operatic career. Isabelle Kabatu is a touching Bess and Michael Forest an insidiously engaging Sportin’Life, while further down the cast list Roberta Alexander’s sympathetic Maria catches the ear.
 
Harnoncourt’s version of the opera incorporates some valuable details from Gershwin’s manuscript. But he inflicts numerous small cuts on the published score, based on those made for the first Broadway run of 1935, without precisely recreating the Broadway version as John Mauceri does on his vivid Decca set.
 
It’s especially galling that some of the cuts, damaging to drama and characterisation, make room for a long and unconvincing reconstruction of the semi-improvised ‘Occupational Humoresque’ which began the last scene on Broadway.
 
Drama is also sabotaged by the absence of some necessary crowd reaction, and by Harnoncourt’s sluggishness in picking up cues in transitions from speech to song.
 
So altogether this new version doesn’t displace Simon Rattle’s vintage Glyndebourne recording, which brings Gershwin’s complete score to disc with a thrilling sense of theatricality. Anthony Burton