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George GERSHWIN (1898–1937)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
William Warfield (bass-baritone) – Porgy; Leontyne Price (soprano) – Bess; Cab Calloway (vocals) – Sporting Life; John McCurry (baritone) – Crown; Joseph James (bass) – Jake; Helen Colbert (soprano) – Clara; Howard Roberts (baritone) – Robbins; Helen Thigpen (soprano) – Serena and several others; Eva Jessye Choir; RIAS
Unterhaltungsorchester/Alexander Smallens
rec. live, Titania Palast, Berlin, 21 September 1952
GUILD GHCD 2313/14 [62:08 + 77:09]
Experience Classicsonline

In 1952 the US State Department subsidized a world tour of Porgy and Bess, which lasted over three years. For many opera lovers this was their first opportunity to see this American folk opera. A lot of the music was already well known through recordings, not only with operatic artists like Helen Jepson, Lawrence Tibbett and the great Paul Robeson but also with leading popular singers and jazz musicians. This tour was the foundation for the success that Porgy and Bess has been ever since. It was also through this tour that the young Leontyne Price made herself a name, even though it was some years before she became firmly established.

The present live recording was made when Price was 25 and the youthful freshness of her singing as well as the lyrical brightness are at once apparent. The recorded sound, the noisy background and sometimes odd balance between orchestra and soloists make this a valuable historical documentation rather than a set one buys and consumes repeatedly as a library recording. Leontyne Price and William Warfield recorded a highlights disc for RCA a good decade later in splendid sound with Skitch Henderson’s taut and precise conducting lifting the music to supreme heights. On that LP Ms Price also sang Clara’s Summertime and Serena’s My man’s gone now. William Warfield’s reading of Porgy’s role was even more assured than here. McHenry Boatwright’s magnificent bass made him an even nastier Crown and the jazz singer John W Bubbles gave special authenticity to Sporting Life – he was the singer who sang the role at the premiere. That record is enthusiastically recommended as a complement to any of the complete recordings.

I suppose that the performance in Titania Palast in Berlin also was enjoyable, if the audience reaction is anything to go by. There is long and powerful applause after several of the set-pieces, most of all the glorious reading of the duet Bess, you is my woman now with Warfield’s warm Porgy matching the bright tones of Ms Price’s superb Bess. The three women in the penultimate scene pulling the leg of the detective are met with repeated laughs. The whole performance is lively, noisy and enthusiastic. There is often tremendous force and rhythmic drive in the many mass-scenes. The performance is fairly complete but there are several minor cuts and the Buzzard song is missing all together. On the other hand there is more spoken dialogue in several places, compared to Simon Rattle’s Glyndebourne recording. I tried to follow the performance via the booklet to that EMI set but this was far from easy.

I have already mentioned Price and Warfield who are superb throughout but there are several other singers who make splendid contributions. Helen Colbert sings Summertime with glorious tone and Helen Thigpen is touching in My man’s gone now. Joseph James as Jake has a magnificent black bass and sings with rhythmic élan while John McCurry’s gruff Crown is less of an asset. I am also in two minds concerning Cab Calloway’s Sporting Life. He is oily and slimy and was probably splendid visually too but vocally he tends to over-act. I prefer John W Bubbles, who was just as jazzy but more balanced.

Readers who want a complete recording of this American ‘verismo’ opera have two splendid sets to choose from: Lorin Maazel’s Decca recording from the mid-1970s and the aforementioned EMI set under Rattle from the late 1980s. On both sets Willard White is a deeply involved Porgy, fresher of voice on Decca; on EMI he is a bit strained on the highest notes.

The inlay to this Guild issue has well-written historical notes and a synopsis but no libretto. As I have already intimated the issue is more aimed at specialist collectors than general opera-lovers. Apart from the technical shortcomings and the noisy production it is definitely highly interesting.

Göran Forsling




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