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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess [selections] (1935)
Original Cast and other early Recordings
Members of the Original Cast, Anne Brown, Harriet Jackson, Edward Matthews, Todd Duncan, Helen Dowdy, Gladys Goode, William Woolfolk, Georgette Harvey and Avon Long with the Eva Jessye Choir and the Decca Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Smallens. Decca recordings of 1940-42
Members of the Original Cast, Avon Long and Helen Dowdy, with the Leo Reisman Orchestra. Decca recording of 1942
Original Cast member Edward Matthews in two songs from Song hits from Porgy and Bess for Dancing album of 1935
Highlights set with Helen Jepson and Lawrence Tibbett with Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Alexander Smallens [and Nathaniel Shilkret on one track] Recorded in New York in 1935
Four-song selection sung by Paul Robeson with an orchestra conducted by Clifford Greenwood in London in 1938
An instrumental collection arranged by Jascha Heifetz (violin) with Emmanuel Bay (piano) and recorded in 1945
Porgy and Bess; A Symphonic Picture arranged by Robert Russell Bennett played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alfred Wallenstein and recorded in Los Angeles in 1944
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110219-20 [2 CDs 137.14]


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When this disc arrived for review I was leafing through an American Decca 10" set of 78s of Stephen Foster songs arranged for string quartet and played by the London. Amongst the advertisements was one for the Heifetz performances included in this Naxos double. Decca had long been engaged in capturing American music on disc; their two Jerome Kern album sets were played by the Gordon Quartet and by the Decca Salon Orchestra conducted by Harry Horlick. Their Gershwin albums were equally devoted, if somewhat confused discographically. The earliest recordings here pre-date those Deccas and are the earlier less well known November 1935 Brunswick coupling by Edward Matthews and the famous 1935 Victors sung by Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson with Alexander Smallens conducting (with one small exception where Nathaniel Shilkret took over). We have then a highlights set from recordings made during the first decade after the premiere with some spicy extras for good measure that round out a most enticing collection.

Anne Brown from the 1940-42 Deccas has great and rather unusual purity of voice, with a vibrato that’s as well sustained as it is imaginatively deployed; Summertime takes on a crystalline innocence as a result and her partners, including the excellent Edward Matthews, prove every bit as compelling. His A Woman is a Sometime Thing is a stylish, characterful and richly nuanced affair. Todd Duncan – much admired by Gershwin – gives inter alia I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ – light, jaunty, insouciant. When Duncan and Brown team up for Bess, You is My Woman Now he is as idiomatically flexible – if light toned – as she is concentrated of tone. We hear from William Woolfolk later on – where he lights up the Crab Man’s Call with fantastic salvos – and the splendid street cries of Helen Dowdy and Gladys Goode. We wait a long time for the wonderful Avon Long but the wait is worth it. He injects a real theatrical frisson into There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York - such colour in his voice, such flinty insinuation. The Eva Jessye Choir do themselves proud and Smallens directs admirably. Long was also to make a big showing in the Decca Song Hits album of 1942 where he was, less than idiomatically, teamed with the lumbering band of Leo Reisman, a Paul Whitemanesque outfit with a side-saddle string section. Doubtless they had many a fine name amongst them – and their massed "blue" fiddle section writing is at least a change. That said their first trumpet was not among the immortals with his corny muted solo in It Ain’t Necessarily So. Long tries hard to lift the stodgy band with him in There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York but even he can’t do the impossible. Still the arrangers of I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ got hard to work with some sinuous colouration for a smart-aleck woodwind orchestration. By strict contrast Edward Matthews fares better in his accompanists back in the 1935 Decca sides (two tracks only) - I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ and It Ain’t Necessarily So go really well.

The second disc opens with the Saturday Night at the Met tones of Helen Jepson, who rolls her "r" with stentorian hauteur and sings Summertime rather as one would ask the maid to sweep the kitchen. I think ‘ultra-refined’ covers it. Tibbett rolls in like Boris Godunov employing every ounce of stagecraft to dramatic effect - the way he sustains breath in I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ is fantastically impressive and his Buzzard Song takes on an almost Verdian intensity, a genuine paroxysm of a crisis. The mismatch in voices is apparent from Bess, You is My Woman Now where Jepson is – not her fault obviously – simply unidiomatic. Robeson is represented by two 1938 discs that coincided with the London run in which he famously starred. He’s marvellous of course – but maybe the orchestra under Clifford Greenwood is a little lacking (apart from the interesting trumpeter who shows a good appreciation of the finer nuances of the style). Then there’s the Heifetz selection, a bewitching confection – luscious, gorgeous, sultry, cocksure, where does one start…His double-stopping in Summertime is worth the price of admission alone; this is a quarter of an hour no fiddle fancier should be without. To finish we have the Robert Russell Bennett arranged Symphonic Picture recorded for Decca in Los Angeles in 1944. This is Pops territory and a work commissioned by Fritz Reiner. It is here presented in the slightly cut version – shorn of seven minutes – in which it first appeared on record to fit 4 x 12" sides.

This is a joyful and - more to the point - historically important set that collates the Deccas and Brunswicks with great vivacity and skill. It also gives indications as to performance practices and priorities in the early days of Porgy and Bess and enshrines performances of vigour, sensitivity and rich character.

Jonathan Woolf

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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