Forget the overrated, overblown Simon Rattle version on EMI. This recording, based on the famous Houston Grand Opera production, is the one to have. It has all the precision and musicality of the best opera recordings, yet with the theatrical excitement, the sense of involvement, that you get in the best Broadway cast albums--in fact, this recording was made (in only three days) while the cast was busy performing this production on Broadway.
Where to start in cataloguing the virtues of this set? Well, start with the conducting of John DeMain. His pacing of the work is excellent, balancing the operatic and "popular" elements just right, and never overdoing things (unlike Rattle, who always overdoes things). The orchestra, while clearly smaller than Rattle's London Philharmonic, plays well. Donnie Ray Albert is a fine Porgy, sometimes a bit strained at the top but with generally excellent singing and characterization. Clamma Dale's Bess won her awards and acclaim; she never went on to the stardom that was predicted for her, but luckily her extraordinary performance is preserved on these discs. I could go on, but there's no need, because there are no weak performers in this cast, and they all have the ensemble feel and sense of timing that comes from performing the work on the stage together for so many evenings.
The studio sound is excellent: Producer Thomas Z. Shepard goes all-out for sound effects, atmospheric touches, and stereo movement, all of which enhances the drama and the feeling of experiencing a real performance--but with the advantages that studio recording brings.
Though this is clearly the first choice, there are other good recordings of PORGY. The 1951 recording (produced by Shepard's mentor Goddard Lieberson) is very good, but heavily cut and in mono sound. The 1969 recording under Lorin Maazel is beautifully sung, if a bit undramatic. Against all this competition, the oft-recommended Rattle seems like a distinct also-ran, for people who wish that PORGY had been written by somebody--anybody-- other than Gershwin. Anyway, this RCA recording is definitely the first choice. Grab it.