Gershwin Porgy and Bess

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

GERSHWIN Porgy and Bess – Rattle

  • Porgy and Bess

In an ideal world, operatic recordings would always evolve in this way. Catfish Row came to Abbey Road Studio No. 1 two-and-a-half years after a Glyndebourne first-night that people still talk about and with the added benefits of two London concert performances to prime everyone for the occasion. And my goodness, it shows. We've a real sense here of Gershwin's community, a feeling of oneness with the piece from singers who've not only lived with, but through, their characters. I doubt we'll ever hear the score in a better light. And what a score it is.
Irving Berlin once wrote: ''the rest of us were songwriters. George was a composer.'' There you have it. This remarkable first opera is a constant reminder of Gershwin's astonishing facility—his ability to rejoice in so many musical cultures and somehow absorb them into is own distinctive style. In Porgy and Bess we've the spirituals, the gospel chants and impulsive bodily rhythms of the Negro culture (witness the wild syncopated drumming which transports us to Kittiwah Island), the jazz and burlesque origins of Sportin' Life's music, the ache of the blues which finds its way into all the great lyric melodies, not least the two celebrated 'love duets', the Hebraic strains of Gershwin's own roots (Act 1 scene 2—the Wake for Robbins), and everywhere, evidence too of the harmonic lessons learned from composers like Ravel and Debussy who were among the idols of his youth.
First opera or not, Gershwin takes to the medium like a past master; the musical techniques are exceptionally well-developed (we should, of course, remember that he had already experimented extensively with 'through-composition' in his ambitious Broadway shows Of Thee I Sing and Let 'em Eat Cake), the motivic use of themes (his 'leitmotifs') especially effective: I would cite the way in which 'Porgy's theme' (first heard in the strings on his entrance Act 1 scene 1, track 5—later an integral part of ''I loves you Porgy'') gradually achieves a kind of sublimation through the opera, or Porgy's first important solo (again Act 1, scene 1) where the words ''Night time, day time'' offer us a fleeting premonition of ''Bess, you is my woman now''. And so on. All of which does wonders, of course, for the dramatic cogency of the piece. Gershwin's theatrical instincts are always spot-on. Take the 'storm scene' (Act 2 scene 4) which puts one in mind of Act 1 scene 2 of Britten's Peter Grimes, but which we might remind ourselves came ten years later. Gershwin symmetrically frames his scene with an extraordinary sextet of voices each chanting his or her own prayer (Ivesian overtones here), the inner-tensions generated in that one simple gesture sets up the mood for the whole sequence.
It helps of course that Simon Rattle's terrific Glyndebourne company, with every support from producer David Murray and his engineer Mark Vigars—the production sounds quite superb—manage to turn Abbey Road into such a theatrical environment. We might just as easily be back on the Glyndebourne stage: you can positively smell the drama in such scenes as the fight and killing of Robbins in Act 1 and the scene on Kittiwah Island. Which brings me back to the performers. And first, a word or two for the LPO who so wholeheartedly give everything they have to this difficult and sometimes awkward score (Gershwin was still, in some respects, feeling his way as an orchestrator). If you doubt for a moment the benefits of familiarity, just listen to the Paganinian brilliance of the violins as Rattle pitches into his scorching tempo for the introduction (and what a marvellous touch on Gershwin's part to have Jasbo Brown's bar-room piano—atmospherically recorded here some way off—take up the repeated brass riff of that introduction). The strings, of course, can deliver at will the high Broadway gloss of the big lyric moments (not least those love duets, here given a truly operatic breadth of line), while the melodramatic highspots—i.e. the strenuous fugal writing for brass in the fight sequence of Act 1—are tough and primitive. Most creditable of all, though, is the way in which these players have gamely loosened their belts where Gershwin asks them to swing. The brass have a field-day—no holds barred in their final chorus ''There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York''. And behind it all is Rattle himself, so attuned and so alive to every aspect of the score. I've spoken of his expansiveness and of the impulsive energy (the juxtaposing of ''Bess, you is my woman'' and ''I can't sit down''—I need hardly tell you what Rattle makes of that), but somehow it's the subtler poetic nuances that linger longest in the mind: Bess's farewell to Porgy as she leaves for the picnic—solo horn over a simple shimmering ostinato in the strings—is but one such instance.
The cast, as I said earlier, are so right, so much a part of their roles, and so well integrated into the whole, that one almost takes the excellence of their contributions for granted. The singing is most beautiful—one fine voice after another, beginning in style with Harolyn Blackwell's radiant Clara whose ''Summertime'', at Rattle's gorgeously lazy tempo, is just about as beguiling as one could wish. In the title-roles, Willard White (the Porgy on Maazel's pioneering Decca set) and Cynthia Haymon seem to me ideal. Through his dark, warm-centred voice, White conveys both the simple honesty and inner-strength of this decent, proud man (''plain old Adam, the simple genuine self against the whole world'', as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it), and he does so without milking the sentiment. Haymon's passionately sung Bess will go wherever a little flattery and encouragement take her. We shed tears for her too. Both are victims. As Sportin'. Life, the good-time viper, Damon Evans not only relishes the burlesque elements of the role (you can feel the razzle-dazzle of his stage presence in both his big numbers—especially of course, ''It ain't necessarily so'') but he really sings what's written—or a lot more than is customary; and l there are sonorous assumptions of Crown and Jake from Gregg Baker and Bruce Hubbard. I'll also treasure Maria's brief tirade—'spoken', not sung, with a swing—against Sportin' Life—''I hates yo' struttin' style''—and, in marked contrast, the Strawberry Woman's haunting chant in Act 2, scene 3—a brief but unforgettable snatch of Camellia Johnson's extraordinary voice. But then, remember we've a chorus (if you can call them that), a 'community', here full of such voices and they deliver throughout with all the unstinted fervour of a Sunday revivalist meeting. Sample for yourself the final moments of the piece—''Oh Lawd, I'm on my way''. If that doesn't stir you—nothing will.'

Gramophone Subscriptions

From£64/year

Gramophone Print

Gramophone Print

no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Reviews

Gramophone Reviews

no Print Edition
no Digital Edition
no Digital Archive
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe
From£64/year

Gramophone Digital Edition

Gramophone Digital Edition

no Print Edition
no Reviews Database
no Events & Offers
From£64/year
Subscribe

If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2017