George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
Jonathan Lemalu (bass) - Porgy; Isabelle Kabatu (soprano) - Bess; Bibiana Nwobilo (soprano) - Clara; Michael Forest (tenor) - Sporting Life; Rodney Clarke (baritone) - Jake; Angela Renée Simpson (soprano) - Serena; Roberta Alexander (soprano) - Maria; Gregg Baker (bass) - Crown; Previn Moore (tenor) - Mingo, Robbins, Peter, Crab Man; Children’s Choir, Arnold Schönberg Chor
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
rec. 29 June, 1, 3, 5, 7 July 2009, Helmut-List-Halle, Graz, Austria
Libretto enclosed
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88697 59176-2 [3 CDs: 71:30 + 63:18 + 41:03]

Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made a remarkable journey through great parts of European music history. He began as one of the pioneers of period performances of central German baroque repertoire half a century ago. Step by step he expanded his scope backwards (his Monteverdi operas were milestones) and forwards, encompassing Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Often controversial in his approach his readings have nevertheless been refreshing in their individuality. No one can accuse him of ever being dull or streamlined. His Beethoven symphony cycle still stands out as one of the most consistently epoch-making. From there the early romantic era was close enough (Weber, Schumann) but it still came as a surprise when he appeared as conductor of the New Year’s Day concerts in Vienna in 2001 and 2003. Long before that he had devoted himself to the Viennese operetta repertoire - quite successfully too. Even more intriguing was his decision to record Verdi’s Aida. This didn’t meet with wholehearted enthusiasm in all camps. This was however a trifling departure from his main road, however winding, compared to his latest by-road: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Harnoncourt has been familiar with at least some of the songs from this opera since the music was new. His father used to play them on the piano and sing. But he ‘definitely didn’t use to be a particular expert on Porgy and Bess’, as he says in an interview printed in the accompanying book to this set. His first intention was to ‘play the work in its entirety, just as Gershwin composed it’. That was what Lorin Maazel did in his famous recording from the 1970s. Reading some articles about the work and its first performance he arrived at the conclusion that Gershwin never intended it to be performed that way. It would be too long and dramatically unwieldy. On the other hand the version that the original conductor Alexander Smallens after some time concocted was heavily reduced and re-orchestrated, bringing the work closer to the traditional musical. That was the version that after the war became the norm. It can be heard in a live recording from Berlin 1952 with Smallens conducting and with a young Leontyne Price as Bess, partnered by William Warfield (see review). Harnoncourt has tried to find a middle road: ‘the opera as the librettist, the composer and the producer worked it out in 1935 [which] makes the most convincing impression …’

Pragmatist that he is, Harnoncourt has rethought and modified the decisions of the production team 75 years ago. There are cuts in the published score but there are also some additions, only found in Gershwin’s manuscript, most notably at the opening of the last scene in act III a Symphony of Noise (CD 3, tr. 7) an evocative and atmospheric piece for sundry percussion instruments, illustrating ‘the sounds of the waking day’. Whether Gershwin would have approved is irrelevant; the vital point is: does it work as a performing version? I think it does, and success with any production of Porgy and Bess - or really any opera - is dependent more on the quality of the performance than what version is used. I can agree with Harnoncourt that Smallens’s version may lack the dimension that may have been Gershwin’s principal aim: to write a true grand opera, but so infectious and committed is the singing - and playing - that one can’t help being deeply involved, in spite of the partly relatively primitive sound.

So what about former baroque specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s credentials as an interpreter of American music? Gershwin’s opera is not exactly a jazz opera but the rhythmic elements are essential. Well, rhythms are essential in baroque music as well and precision and acuity have always been two of his hallmarks. And the quotation in the booklet that he has brought swing back into classical music seems rather appropriate. There is nothing of the foursquare ‘warrant officer jazz’, as it is sometimes labelled when sight-reading conservatory-trained musicians try to make music swing. The orchestral introduction has the right rhythmic swagger - though Jazzbo Brown’s piano solo is rather stale - and he very aptly uncovers the many subtle intricacies of Gershwin’s marvellous score. Harnoncourt has sometimes been castigated for eccentric choices of tempo but in this case I see no reason to have deviant opinions. The playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is also in this repertoire beyond reproach. They are plainly magnificent.

We have become used to the high standards of the Arnold Schönberg Chor, and no one is likely to find any faults in intonation, precision or tonal beauty. The problem is that it is the wrong kind of tonal beauty. Where the chorus in Berlin 1952 oozes raw energy, ecstasy and uninhibited joy or sorrow this choir is neat and refined. These are the two adjectives least appropriate for the people of Catfish Row. I am afraid this is a major drawback.

The solo singing is variable. The distaff side is generally more successful. Bibiana Nwobilo, the first voice we hear, sings Clara’s Summertime beautifully and with blues feeling. Angela Renée Simpson is a good Serena and is especially impressive in Shame on all you, sinners (CD 2, tr. 7). As Maria we hear Roberta Alexander, who at 60 is remarkably unscathed by the passing years. Isabelle Kabatu is a vocally and dramatically convincing Bess and the scene with Crown (CD 2 trs. 7-8) is immensely intense. There is also a good Strawberry Woman, not credited in the cast list.

When Jonathan Lemalu’s debut record was released 2002 it was greeted with almost universal acclaim and he seemed set for a glorious career. I am afraid that what we hear on this recording indicates a serious decline. His voice has warmth and he imbues the role with deep understanding and expressivity, but the tone is wobbly, so much so that it is not always clear what note he is aiming at. There is still a lot to admire but this is another serious drawback. Gregg Baker sang Crown for Simon Rattle more than twenty years ago and still impresses, particularly in A redheaded woman (CD 2 tr. 22). Rodney Clark’s Jake is another wobbler and Michael Forest is oily enough as Sporting Life but also he lacks a true tonal centre.

For a complete recording Simon Rattle on EMI is still the best option, though Willard White is rather strained at times (1988 CD; 1988 CD reissue; 2002 DVD version). He was fresher on the Maazel recording. Those who are satisfied with a highlights disc can find nothing better than the early 1960s recording with Leontyne Price and William Warfield (RCA). On Philips there was a recording (still in the catalogue I believe) with Simon Estes and Roberta Alexander. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is always interesting, the Symphony of Noise is a fascinating novelty and there are several good singers. However the shaky Porgy and the bloodless chorus more or less rule it out.

Göran Forsling