GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess

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George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Porgy and Bess

Revolutionaries and their works are usually controversial in their time. They tend to be better appreciated in later years. So it was with George Gershwin and his landmark folk opera, Porgy and Bess.

The Gershwin saga has been told so many times and in so many ways that it would be superfluous to delve into it here. The point must be made, however, that Gershwin’s achievement seems all the greater as time moves us farther away from it. He was appreciated in many ways and at many junctures in his brilliant career, but never so greatly as after his passing. His importance was recognised by some perceptive souls soon after his death. After Jascha Heifetz had played a Gershwin composition at one of the regular chamber music sessions at the home of Columbia Pictures musical director Morris Stoloff, the legendary violinist said to his friends, "We should be ashamed that we didn’t appreciate this man more when he was here in our midst."

The same can be said about Porgy and Bess. It was not unappreciated at the time of its première in 1935. Unconventional for its time, it required the passage of time to be seen for what it is. This two-disc set gives us the opportunity to do just that. Nearly three-quarters of a century after Gershwin, together with with his brother, Ira, and the author DuBose Heyward, created it, Porgy and Bess has now acquired a lustre that for a time was buried in its core.

Myths about the show have developed. One is that it was trounced when it first appeared. On close reading of the numerous reviews it received at the time, it is clear that it had some staunch admirers and some equally vehement detractors. For the most part, however, it was viewed as a work so different from the norm that even some attuned ears needed time to take it all in and render a fuller verdict at a later date.

One of the most revealing reviews of this musical saga of South Carolina’s Catfish Row was delivered by the composer and critic Virgil Thomson on the show’s revival in 1941, four years after Gershwin’s death. He wrote, "Porgy and Bess is a strange case. It has more faults than any work I have ever known by a reputable composer. There are faults of taste, faults of technique and grave miscalculations about theatrical effect…. [Gershwin] didn’t know much about aesthetics and he couldn’t orchestrate for shucks; but his strength was as the strength of ten because his musical heart was really pure."

The present release also contains purity. It presents recordings of Porgy and Bess made immediately after its unveiling and for the first ten years of its life. It enables the listener to go back to that time. With these recordings restored and gathered together for the first time, revisionist history can be eliminated and it is possible to imagine how the score would have sounded to listeners of the 1930s and 1940s. Listening to other works of this period will only help reinforce the unconventional nature of Porgy and Bess.

The first disc brings together the numerous original cast recordings made between 1935 and 1942. Perhaps it would be better to say recordings made with members of the original cast and orchestra. Some members of the original cast were not included and numbers were often assigned to artists who did not perform them in the original production, but they have a flavour of their time that makes that all inconsequential.

While Decca had many of its popular artists record the songs in a disjointed fashion soon after the show’s opening, the label waited five years before attacking the work in a major way. The wait was worth while. Credit for finally embarking on the then ambitious task of recording the score as a self-contained work, rather than just a series of random sides, goes to the label’s visionary and courageous founder, Jack Kapp. Few others in the recording industry have advanced the concept of the home recording to the extent that he did. Porgy and Bess benefited immensely from Kapp’s enthusiasm for the score.

Porgy and Bess was Decca’s first original cast album, recorded in 1940, long before Oklahoma!, which is commonly regarded as the first original cast album. Earlier albums, such as Show Boat and The Band Wagon, used cast members with studio or dance orchestras, not the original pit orchestras. For the four 12\ discs, Decca brought the cast members Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, the Eva Jessye Choir and the conductor Alexander Smallens into the studio to record what turned out to be Volume One only. The three 10" sides for the second volume were recorded in 1942 following the show’s west coast revival and included the members of that production.

Just before the recording of the sides for Volume Two, Decca recorded an album of Porgy and Bess Song Hits for Dancing, with Leo Reisman’s Orchestra and vocals by 1941 cast members Avon Long and Helen Dowdy. These were listed in the Decca catalogue as Porgy and Bess Volume Three. They lack the subtlety of the sides in the other volumes, but contain some exciting performances, especially those of Avon Long.

Interesting but not quite on the same mark as the Decca recordings are the two sides recorded with original cast member Edward Matthews, backed by the dance band of Leo Reisman. One gets the feeling that Brunswick was hedging its bets by combining a proven popular band with a black artist who was relatively unknown to most record buyers of the day.

The second disc features the first contemporary recordings of the score. It begins with what were actually the first commercial recordings, as well. These were the set of highlights made by Victor with the Metropolitan Opera stars Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, under the direction of the show’s original conductor, Alexander Smallens. It is reported that the original chorus was also used, but that has never been confirmed. Inexplicably, the Victor stalwart Nathaniel Shilkret substituted for Smallens at the last of three October, 1935, sessions for this set.

While the racial content of Porgy and Bess was criticized by Duke Ellington at the time of its début, the great artist and social activist Paul Robeson had no qualms about the work. He gladly recorded four of the show’s songs for HMV during his period of English activity in the mid-to-late 1930s. They serve only to remind us of the vibrancy and depth of this sensitive singer.

Perhaps the most intriguing non-vocal treatment of the Porgy and Bess score was that of Jascha Heifetz. As previously mentioned, he was a great fan of Gershwin’s and lamented the fact that many of his contemporaries were late in joining him in his admiration. In 1945, he arranged and recorded six selections as part of an all-Gershwin 78 rpm set which also included the Three Preludes. Heifetz is accompanied by the pianist Emanuel Bay. These superb Heifetz sides offer proof that the works deserve rediscovery by contemporary violinists and performance in the recital halls of the 21st century.

Concluding this collection is the first recording of Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestral adaptation, Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. The work was commissioned in 1942 by Fritz Reiner, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Bennett, who had orchestrated many of Gershwin’s popular works, said that he followed Reiner’s ideas on sequence
Disc: 1
Bess, You is My Woman
1 Act I: Scene 1: Overture
2 Act I: Scene 1: Summertime
3 Act I: Scene 1: Summertime and Crap Game
4 Act I: Scene 1: A Woman is a Sometime Thing
5 Act I: Scene 2: My Man's Gone Now
6 Act II: Scene 1: It Takes a Long Pull to Get There
7 Act II: Scene 1: I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'
8 Act II: Scene 1: Buzzard Song
9 Act II: Scene 1: Bess, You is My Woman Now
10 Act II: Scene 2: It Ain't Necessarily So
11 Act II: Scene 2: What You Want Wid' Bess
12 Act II: Scene 3: Street Cries: Strawberry Woman's
13 Act II: Scene 3: I Loves You, Porgy
14 Act III: Scene 1: The Requiem
15 Act III: Scene 2: There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soo
16 Act III: Scene 3: Porgy's lament (Where is My Bess
17 Act III: Scene 3: Finale (I'm On My Way)
18 It Ain't Necessarily So
19 A Woman is a Sometime Thing
20 Summertime
21 There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York
22 I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'
23 Bess, You is My Woman
24 I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'
25 It Ain't Necessarily So
Disc: 2
Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (arr. Robert R
1 Lullaby: Summertime / Livin's Easy
2 Summertime and Crap Game
3 A Woman is a Sometime Thing
4 My Man's Gone Now
5 I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'
6 Buzzard Song
7 Bess, You is My Woman Now
8 It Ain't Necessarily So
9 Where is My Bess?
10 Lullaby: Summertime / Livin's Easy
11 A Woman is a Sometime Thing
12 It Takes a Long Pull to Get There
13 It Ain't Necessarily So
14 Summertime
15 A Woman is a Sometime Thing
16 My Man's Gone Now
17 It Ain't Necessarily So
18 Bess, You is My Woman Now
19 Tempo di Blues: There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon
20 Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture
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