Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Respected Mitteleuropean Conductor Conducts Wha'???

This may not be actually be the strangest choice of repertoire that a famous conductor has made, but it's up there. A few days ago, the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the fathers of the early-music movement who also built a successful parallel career conducting 19th century European music (his recordings of Beethoven, Schumann and Dvořák are mostly very fine) decided to conduct his first work of 20th-century American music... Porgy and Bess. At the Styriarte Festival in Graz, he led concert performances of Gershwin's jazz opera; Canada's Measha Brueggergosman was originally supposed to be Bess, but unfortunately had to pull out due to illness.

Harnoncourt has made some strange repertoire choices before, including a legendarily bad recording of Verdi's Aida, but the sight of one of the most ultra-European musical figures (he rarely works outside Europe) trying to lead a jazz/musical-comedy opera with an all-black cast -- but with his regular chorus, the Viennese Arnold Schoenberg Choir -- was about as bizarre as it gets. Particularly since visual evidence suggests that, even in a concert without costumes, the staging managed to be kind of Euro-trashy. It's not quite the equivalent of Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras singing West Side Story, but it's close.

There will be no recording, of course, but there audio excerpt available online; it features the opening of Act 2 scene 2, with a chorus followed by "It Ain't Necessarily So," and while the song is pretty standard (it's an unkillable song), the chorus sounds like nobody has any idea what they're singing about or what these rhythms are supposed to signify, and the conducting is slow, strange and square. (Though to be fair, it's really no worse than parts of Simon Rattle's famous Porgy performances/recording.)

For all that, I like Harnoncourt a lot; he's actually one of my favourite living conductors, because while he is often bizarre, he's rarely completely uninteresting. (Even his recording of Aida has a certain perverse fascination as long as you don't expect it to be, you know, good.) He's one of those guys who approaches every work with a "concept," often based on weird readings of character motivations or what the composer was thinking, and then he interprets the music in light of whatever he happens to think it's about. When the concept makes sense, it can lead to interesting performances, and while he's not a technically brilliant conductor, he's very good at getting a distinctive, biting sound out of any orchestra he works with (and the ability to execute a concept and create his own sound are more important, for a conductor, than having the clearest time-beating skills).

(Cross-posted at TV Guidance.)


Anonymous said...

I enjoy the Simon rattle recording quite a bit, but it's the only one I have heard (not counting things like Louis and Ellas recording. Her "my mans gone now" gives me chills every time.). What recordings of the complete opera do you recommend?
I saw a college production at oberlin years ago, and the trio at the end "where's my bess" left me shaking. Haven't heard a recording of that section that moves me so much, but I would like to...

Anonymous said...

"little moses was found in a straim"????

No recording beats the 1951 Columbia album which at 2 hours was considered to be complete. The cast and chorus has the roughness that Gershwin wanted and Ira supervised. The "Where's my bess" to the end is the best of any recording.
For genuinely complete-I'd go with the 1976 Houston Grand Opera-the point being that a cast which has LIVED the show onstage always beats a purer studio recording.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Anonymous # 1: I would basically second the recommendations of Anonymous # 2.

The 1951 recording is perhaps the most exciting performance, where the performers aren't afraid to throw in ad-libs and other traditional bits of theatrical business that Gershwin would have approved of; it cut, I think, too much material but it was much more complete than any stage performances at the time. And it's the only recording that has a high baritone Porgy (Lawrence Winters), which I think is more appropriate than for the role, both historically and musically, than the basses and bass-baritones who usually get the part.

The Houston Grand Opera recording is the best of the uncut versions, and has terrific stereo "staging" and sound effects (which I love; others don't). Probably the first choice overall.

The first of the complete recordings, the 1976 Cleveland Orchestra recording on Decca under Lorin Maazel, is very studio-bound (made after concert performances with a very polite-sounding chorus), but has some fine singing (a young Barbara Hendricks as Clara) and the Cleveland Orchestra is the best ever recorded in this music.

The most recent Decca recording, by John Mauceri, is interesting for using the version that was performed on Broadway in 1935 (not as heavily cut as the 1951 version, but shorter than the full score, which is really too long), but the performance isn't competitive with the others.