Like Verdi, Gershwin regularly gets patronized by the classical critical "highbrows," who fault his technique without recognizing how his genius transcends his technical limitations. And, by the way, often what they perceive as limitations are Gershwin's legitimate innovations. Neither Aaron Copland nor Samuel Barber produced an opera as fine as Porgy and Bess. Virgil Thomson's operas, wonderful as they are, fundamentally differ from what people normally consider opera and, in any case, haven't struck as deep into the American psyche as P&B. People know arias from this score without realizing that the tunes belong to something larger. For many folks, Porgy and Bess has become less an opera than a "show." Furthermore, we seldom hear the music as Gershwin wrote it. We hear it in jazz settings, Robert Russell Bennett's "Symphonic Picture," and so on. Yet, for me it has always been one of the world's great operas, let alone the greatest American opera. Even the libretto is superb. With a cast of characters that rivals that of Boris Godunov in number, the Gershwins and Dubose Heyward manage to concentrate dramatic power and to move things along.
The first relatively complete recording comes from the early LP era on the Columbia label, conducted by Lehman Engel. The first complete stereo versions come from the Houston Grand Opera and Loren Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra on London/Decca. Rattle's is the third entry. He shares some of the principal singers with Maazel. Engel's version at this point has become historically, rather than aesthetically important, except as a record of some wonderful Black singers and entertainers. The Houston Grand Opera production is little better than okay, although some writers have an affection for it. I don't see why. The orchestra is scrappy, the reading gives ammunition to those who think of Gershwin as an amateur, and the performers (although there are fine voices among them) nevertheless in general seem stiff or in a daze. To me, there's little difference between Maazel and Rattle. Maazel has an amazing orchestra at his disposal. On the other hand, Rattle handles Gershwin's musical transitions better (if not completely successfully). I listen to both regularly, and I think both have their claims to your wallet and shelf space.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt, of all people, has just recorded a version for Sony with a European orchestra, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, and a mixed American-European cast. The results are mixed. The cast is the weakest element. Gershwin has been rewritten in spots (to make him more "up-to-date?"). On the other hand, Harnoncourt gives the best overall reading so far of the "operatic" elements, although in some places he just don't swing. The soundtrack to the Preminger movie (music arranged by Andre Previn) has by far the best cast -- Robert McFerrin as Porgy, Adele Addison as Bess, Brock Peters as Crown, Eddie Matthews as Jake, and the incredible Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life) -- but it's not complete and it's not really Gershwin. Nevertheless, it's the best-performed recording out there. Until we get a complete version as good, it's still necessary.