Porgy and Bess/Nikolaus Harnoncourt

0 of 5 stars

Porgy and Bess – opera in three acts to a libretto by DuBose Heyward with lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Porgy – Jonathan Lemalu
Bess – Isabelle Kabatu
Crown – Gregg Baker
Serena – Angela Renée Simpson
Clara – Bibina Nwobilo
Maria – Roberta Alexander
Jake – Rodney Clarke
Sportin’ Life – Michael Forest
Mingo / Robbins / Peter / Crab Man – Previn Moore
Detective / Archdale / Policeman – David McShane
Scipio – Yannick Germain Balhe

Arnold Schoenberg Chor

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Recorded 29 June and 1, 3, 5 & 7 July 2009 in Helmut-List-Halle, Graz, Austria

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: December 2009
88697591762 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 56 minutes



An eyebrow – or two – might be raised at the notion – let alone the reality – of Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting George Gershwin’s masterpiece “Porgy and Bess”, given that his discography has largely eschewed 20th-century works (recordings of Bartók and Franz Schmidt being the exceptions). But here is a recording, culled from live performances, which positively projects conviction and, to be sure, affection on the part of the conductor. There are passages which have never been more convincingly realised on recordings hitherto.

There is, however, one important caveat, which is that Harnoncourt does not perform the complete text of Gershwin’s opera as published – as do Lorin Maazel and Simon Rattle in their complete recordings. Instead, he has – like John Mauceri in his disappointing Decca recording and, for that matter, David Charles Abell with the recently toured Cape Town Opera production – consulted the performing materials for the first production which embodies cuts (some substantial) supposedly sanctioned by the composer. The question of excisions from scores – particularly opera scores – is a musicological minefield and lengthy arguments can be generated on the topic. In this instance (unlike, say, Bizet’s “Carmen” or Verdi’s “Don Carlos”) there is a definitive score available, published before the opera was first produced. One can, therefore, reasonably conclude that this score represents the composer’s intentions. Documentary evidence confirms that some of the various cuts imposed were for purely practical reasons – the total duration of the evening, for instance, or the first Porgy’s physical staying-power.

Unlike Mauceri, who rigorously stuck to what was performed on the first night, Harnoncourt has elected to pick and choose. Thus Maria’s spoken admonition to Sportin’ Life is included, along with Porgy’s ‘Buzzard Song’, as well as various other ‘cut’ passages. Arguably, therefore, Harnoncourt presents a ‘hybrid’ version. Of course, many nineteenth-century operas – even those well-known – are still subjected to conductorial (or a diva’s) whims when it comes to performing editions, but one can only express a note of regret that Harnoncourt – so rigorous a scholar as he is – has chosen to disregard the composer’s full published intentions.

But rather a fervent semi-truncated performance than an anaemic literal one such as Mauceri presents; for Harnoncourt and his forces present Gershwin’s opera with unusual fervour and, whatever incidental reservations there may be, the sense of characters and community coming to life is positively tangible. Granted the first few minutes might sound somewhat dogged, but with the appearance of Bibina Nwobilo’s Clara (preceded by a snatch of Jasbo Brown’s piano, completely cut from the first production), one senses Harnoncourt easing into the music, and subsequently there is barely a passage which does not feel ‘right’ either in tempo, atmosphere or characterisation.

There is an underlying tension to the ‘crap game’, during which key protagonists are presented; the warmly expressive violins on Porgy’s entrance immediately convey the affection in which he is held by the inhabitants of Catfish Row. Similarly, the nervous, edgy music which underlines both the game and the appearance of Crown (Porgy’s antagonist) is vividly projected. Here, and throughout, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is quite exemplary. The distinctive colouration of Gershwin’s score is quite unerringly conveyed.

Jonathan Lemalu presents a somewhat more youthful protagonist than we are perhaps accustomed to. He is expressive and characterful, though possibly somewhat lacking in a real ‘bass’ quality which makes Willard White’s portrayal so telling. Conversely, Isabelle Kabatu is rather more mature-sounding than others. But, in her duet with Crown – superbly realised here – she confesses that “she’s gettin’ old now”, so perhaps her timbre is not inapposite after all. She is certainly feisty in the finale to Act One (“Leavin’ for the Promise’ Lan’”) – though one regrets the omission of the second verse and the orchestral coda – which Harnoncourt directs in a most exemplary fashion. Gregg Baker commendably presents Crown as more than a ‘cardboard’ villain; his interaction with other characters is well-nigh ideal, as is his singing of ‘A red-headed woman’ in the storm scene, the whole of which is almost unbearably gripping, moving and exciting.

The opera is cast from strength – even if the spoken contributions (especially as the Detective) of David McShane leave something to be desired – outstanding amongst which are Michael Forest (providing a real and welcome tenorial ‘ring’ to Sportin’ Life’s lines) and Angela Renée Simpson, whose ‘My man’s gone now’ is most affecting.

Withal is a sense of the conductor propelling a performance of a work for which he has both admiration and a very soft spot.Whilst I shall retain Maazel for the complete text, Harnoncourt presents a fresh view which is utterly compelling and which demands to be heard.

2 thoughts on “Porgy and Bess/Nikolaus Harnoncourt”

  1. Please do a modicum of research on the musicological background of the score before making unfounded claims about the composer’s “intentions” – these were clearly established in 1935.

  2. Wow! You’re commenting on a review that was written in 2009, however, as Tim pointed out 13 years ago, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that, there being a definitive score available, this would at least signal what the composers intentions were at the time.

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