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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)
The Rake’s Progress (1951)
Hilde Güden (soprano) – Anne Truelove; Blanche Thebom (mezzo) – Baba the Turk; Eugene Conley (tenor) – Tom Rakewell; Mack Harrell (baritone) – Nick Shadow; Martha Lipton (mezzo) – Mother Goose; Norman Scott (bass) – Truelove; Paul Franke (tenor) – Sellem; Lawrence Davidson (baritone) – Keeper of the Madhouse
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky
rec. 1, 8, 10 March 1953, Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City
NAXOS 8.111266-67 [73:25 + 72:25]

On a visit to the Chicago Art Institute in May 1947 Igor Stravinsky saw an exhibition of works by the English artist William Hogarth, including a series of canvases under the collective title The Rake’s Progress, painted 1732–1733. The motifs had been circulated in the shape of engravings. The story about the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell had already been the basis of a ballet by Ninette de Valois for the Vic-Wells Company in 1935. The Handelian pastiche score was by Gavin Gordon.
Stravinsky also saw the possibilities and decided to write a number opera with recitatives, accompanied by harpsichord. The music was by and large in the same neo-classicist style that he had first used for his ballet Pulcinella, based on the works of the 18th century composer Pergolesi, almost thirty years earlier. The libretto was worked out in close collaboration with English poet W. H. Auden and the work was premiered, after some initial trouble, on 11 September 1951 in Venice in connection with the fourteenth biennale of contemporary music. Though the reception was mixed opera houses around the world queued up to get the rights – a brand new opera by the greatest living composer, and one that had melodies as well! Within a year it was produced in Edinburgh, Geneva, Paris, Strasbourg, Vienna and in several German opera-houses. In February 1953 it reached the Metropolitan where Fritz Reiner conducted it and George Balanchine was the director. A few weeks later Columbia recorded the work with the Metropolitan cast but with the composer conducting. He re-recorded it a decade later for CBS and there is also a recording from Venice in 1951.
The action of the opera takes place in England in the 18th century. In the first act Tom and Anne are happy together. They are in Anne’s father’s summer-house when Nick Shadow appears and informs Tom that he has inherited a fortune and has to go to London. There he leads a licentious life with regular visits to Mother Goose’s brothel. Anne decides to go to London and find him. In act 2 Tom is unhappy and Nick advises him to marry, Baba, who is the bearded lady at a circus. Anne finds Tom but he says that she has to forget him, since he has married Baba. The marriage is unhappy and after a row Tom silences Baba by thrusting a wig over her face. Nick appears with a fake machine that can make bread out of stones and the two decide to make a fortune with the help of the machine. In the third act Tom is ruined and his belongings are sold on an auction, including Baba, who has been collecting dust for many a moon. Tom and Nick, who of course is Tom’s evil genius, play cards in a churchyard. The stake is Tom’s soul. Tom eventually wins and Nick burns in Hell but before that he casts a spell of insanity upon Tom. He is brought to Bedlam, the madhouse, where he believes he is Adonis, waiting for the arrival of Venus. Anne comes and sings a lullaby and Tom falls asleep. Truelove takes Anne away and Tom dies.
It is a bleak tale and the mourning chorus that is sung after Tom’s death is poignant but it is followed by a short epilogue which is in sharp contrast to the sorrowful chorus, rhythmic and pregnant, where the five main characters  explain the moral: “For idle hands and hearts and minds, the Devil finds a work to do.”
Stravinsky’s music is just as many-faceted as the abrupt turns of the tale. It is however written with good understanding of the human voice and is eminently singable, even though his setting of the actual words is sometimes awkward. Some of the arias are also highly attractive separately: Tom’s Here I stand, Shadow’s I was never saner and his departure in the graveyard I burn, I burn! I freeze!, Baba’s song As I was saying and, most of all, Anne Truelove’s scene that concludes the first act, No word from Tom … I go, I go to him with glittering coloratura.
The Metropolitan cast in 1953 was a strong one with some of the best home-grown singers singing in their mother-tongue and with the delightful Austrian Mozart and Strauss specialist Hilde Güden as a highly idiomatic Anne. The orchestra and chorus, with the music in their bones after intense rehearsals under the demanding Fritz Reiner, are excellent. Stravinsky’s conducting gives the recording a certain authenticity, even though it is far from self-evident that a composer is the best interpreter of his own music. Be that as it may, the playing is crisp and rhythmically alert, recorded in excellent mono sound in dryish acoustics that seem at one with the rather chilly music. The jagged rhythms of the choral opening of act 1 scene 2 are especially well reproduced and once again credit must be given to Mark Obert-Thorn for his excellent restoration work.
Hilde Güden’s Anne is warm and affectionate. The big scene in act one is as good as any I have heard - with the exception of Margareta Hallin, the first Swedish Anne Truelove. The lullaby in the madhouse is simple, caring and beautiful. Eugene Conley was one of the leading tenors at the Met in the 1950s, where he made his debut as Gounod’s Faust, and his virile, bright-toned and lyrical tenor is a splendid instrument for Tom. He is especially impressive in the aria that opens act 2. Mack Harrell, father of cellist Lynn Harrell, has a baritone of similar qualities, warm and rounded, and he portrays the cynical Nick Shadow’s machinations with chilling precision. The only objection one could possibly level at him is that he doesn’t sound evil enough. On the other hand malice in disguise is often more dangerous than blatantly unmasked wickedness. We can also savour Norman Scott’s deep and sonorous bass as Truelove and Martha Lipton as a fruity Mother Goose though she has little enough to sing. Blanche Thebom is a formidable Baba and Paul Franke, well-known comprimario at the Met, is a splendid Sellem in the auction scene.
There are at least half a dozen more modern recordings of The Rake’s Progress, none of them without merit. That said, there is a special frisson about this first studio recording with a splendid American cast direct from live performances and the imprimatur of the composer conducting. There are no texts and translations but a cued synopsis that works as an acceptable guide through the many turns of the story.
Göran Forsling

see also review by Ewan McCormick


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