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Jerome KERN (1885-1945)
Show Boat (1927)
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Magnolia Hawks - Frederica von Stade (sop); Gaylord Ravenal - Jerry Hadley (tenor); Julie Laverne - Teresa Stratas (sop) ; Joe - Bruce Hubbard (bass); Queenie - Karla Burns (mezzo); Frank Schultz - David Garrison (tenor); Ellie May Chipley - Paige O'Hara (sop); Captain Andy Hawks - Robert Nichols (baritone); Parthy Ann Hawks - Nancy Kulp ; Lady on levee - Lillian Gish
Ambrosian Chorus
London Sinfonietta/John McGlinn
rec. Abbey Road Studio 1, London, June-September 1987.
EMI CLASSICS GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY 3615432 [3 CDs: 70:26 + 74:55 + 76:10]

This classic three disc set really did make waves in the recording world when first released in 1988. It led the way in proving that if first class musicological scholarship is applied to any musical work, even if it is considered 'lighter' fare, the results can be a revelation. John McGlinn's patience, skill and sheer bloody-minded determination in researching archives and restoring the original score - including missing items - of this ground-breaking piece of music theatre were rewarded with a recording of instant classic status. There was a less positive side to its success, in that other recordings of Broadway shows featuring full-blown opera voices followed, most with far less successful results, but Show Boat's casting is a triumph.
From the rousing overture onwards, it is obvious Kern draws on many influences, including Scott Joplin, G&S, as well as European operetta and operatic repertoire. One of the revelations for me was the subtle underscoring of the many spoken passages, where the story and characterisations are developed over an 'underlay' of melodic and harmonic texture based on themes from the piece. This is Kern taking operatic practice and using it for his own purpose, weaving the themes and leitmotifs with Wagnerian skill. How hard it is to believe that even Porgy and Bess, itself a landmark, was a few years away, so familiar and beloved are these tunes. One can see why one critic referred to the history of the American musical as "simple - there's before Show Boat and after Show Boat".
McGlinn's love of the score shines through every bar. He conducts with a passion and insight that are infectious, and this rubs off on his starry cast. Frederica von Stade's Magnolia Hawks is meltingly beautiful, her voice soaring with Kern's ravishing melodies. Jerry Hadley's Ravenal is no less inspired, his heady tenor just lightened enough to take off the heavy operatic edge; their famous Act 1 duet 'Only Make Believe' is simply but beautifully phrased, the build-up to the climactic moment sending shivers down the spine. The other true opera star, Teresa Stratas, also tones down the operatic side of her voice, giving a charming and heartfelt performance as Julie. This really is how to switch from, say, the angular intricacies of Berg's Lulu to the affecting simplicity of a number like 'Bill' and still be totally credible and convincing.
Bruce Hubbard, taken on to the project as a late replacement for Willard White, is a magnificent Joe and the best compliment one could give is that all thoughts of how White would perform 'Ol' Man River' are completely erased. White's controversial withdrawal, as well as that of the Glyndebourne Chorus, mainly due to the regular and, to our modern ears, uncomfortable use of the word 'nigger', threatened to overshadow the whole enterprise, but McGlinn's insistence on sticking to Kern and Hammerstein's original lyrics is triumphantly vindicated. This is the period being portrayed, whether we like it or not, and McGlinn is correct when he says "Nigger is a hateful word, but it's there for shock value, to stun an audience and make them think about what conditions were like then". Inter-racial marriage is a central theme of the work and a brave subject to tackle in 1927, another reason this show is so influential.
All the other parts are also superbly sung. I especially like David Garrison and Paige O'Hara as comic couple Frank and Ellie, both possessing more authentic 'Broadway' voices with bags of pizzazz and personality. Praise has to be lavished on the London Sinfonietta who must have loved the break from complex contemporary scores to let their hair down here, giving McGlinn playing of razor-sharp clarity and an authentic jazzy swing. Similarly, the Ambrosian Chorus's substantial contribution is memorable, gutsy and joyful and with authentic sounding accents - try 'Cap'n Andy's Ballyhoo' to see what I mean. Recording quality is exemplary.
As with most GROC re-issues, the booklet is paired down from the lavish original and consists of an updated essay praising the recording, certainly fully justified here. Richard Osborne avoids the controversial elements but provides a typically stimulating read. The full text is replaced by a cued synopsis which, given the singers' superb diction and clarity of the recording, is perfectly fine. A heart-warming experience and another GROC to savour.
Tony Haywood
Great Recordings of the Century page


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