The Nashville Symphony Orchestra has been making a lot of history lately. Last month, the ensemble officially opened its new Schermerhorn Symphony Center, an acoustical marvel that has already transformed the city’s classical music scene. And now it has emerged with a new recording of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess that will likely change forever the way we listen to and perform America’s greatest opera.
Splendidly conducted by John Mauceri, the NSO’s two-CD set is like a time capsule, presenting a version of Porgy that hasn’t been heard in more than 70 years. The set includes the first-ever recording of an ingenious yet strangely beautiful mini-symphony—an ensemble of ambient sounds scored for clinking cooking utensils, clapping hands, sawing wood and (weirdest of all) a snoring man.
Moreover, this tighter, brighter opera makes judicious cuts (nearly 35 minutes are hacked out of the original published score), fleshes out characters (the opera’s villain, Crown, becomes more than a mere sadist) and gives deeper meaning to many of the timeless tunes (“Summertime” now sounds like a rapturously beautiful aria instead of a sad lullaby).
Gershwin made these edits himself following Porgy’s Boston premiere in September 1935, and the revised version was staged a month later on Broadway. Amazingly, though, none of his changes were ever published, and all were essentially lost and forgotten following Gershwin’s untimely death in 1937 (at the tragically young age of 38).
Charles Hamm, a Dartmouth University professor, discovered Gershwin’s edits and wrote about them in a 1987 issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society. Mauceri used that article as the starting point for his Nashville recording.
With assistance from Hamm and other scholars, he plowed through the music libraries at Harvard and Yale, the New York Public Library and Library of Congress to create a facsimile of the revised score. It was a painstaking exercise in art restoration that revealed a masterpiece of striking originality and beauty.
You can hear some of the most dramatic changes at the beginning of the recording. The overture’s quicksilver pace is slowed down, bringing it in line with Gershwin’s revised tempo marking of “Risoluto e ben marcato” (resolutely and well marked). That change is incredibly important, since it gives the xylophone player a fighting chance to play (with accuracy) all of the opening section’s wildly off-kilter notes.
Some revisions are incredibly subtle—a single corrected note that flies by at a blistering pace is essentially inaudible. Others stand out in bold relief: the appearance in the first act of an onstage band (wonderfully performed on the CD by the Tennessee State University Band) is one obvious example; the addition of that ambient symphony (which Gershwin called an “occupational humoresque”) in the final scene is another.
One thing about Porgy that never changes is the need for great singing, and in that respect the Nashville Symphony’s recording doesn’t disappoint. Nicole Cabell (Clara) sings with a remarkably silky soprano, a voice that’s incredibly sensuous in “Summertime” and utterly heartbreaking in “My Man’s Gone Now.” Alvy Powell basically owns the role of Porgy, and he sings throughout with the sort of weighty notes that must have originated in some subterranean cavern of his chest. Likewise, Lester Lynch (Crown) performs with a bass of menacing power, while Marquita Lister (Bess) delivers every one of her lines with ravishing beauty. Mauceri provides expert accompaniment, making Gershwin’s jazzy score sound at times like an orchestral tone poem.
After Gershwin’s death, Porgy often appeared in a vandalized version, as a play with spoken dialogue, with singing limited to the hit songs. (That’s not at all what Gershwin intended, but it does explain why many people today continue to think of Porgy as a musical.) Porgy reappeared as an opera in the 1970s, but without the benefit of the composer’s edits. Now that Nashville has recorded the definitive version of this opera, George Gershwin may finally get the last word on Porgy.