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Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rake’s Progress (1953) [145:50]
Act 1 [43:33]
Act 2 Beginning [29:52]
Act 2 Conclusion [11:51]
Act 3 [57:49]
Epilogue [2:45]
Anne Trulove - Hilde Gueden (soprano)
Baba the Turk - Blanche Thebom (mezzo)
Tom Rakewell - Eugene Conley (tenor)
Nick Shadow - Mack Harrell (baritone)
Mother Goose - Martha Lipton (mezzo)
Trulove - Norman Scott (bass)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Igor Stravinsky
rec. 1, 8, 10 March 1953, Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York City. ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111266-67 [73:25 + 72:32]

Stravinsky’s first studio recording of The Rake’s Progress, made in New York concurrently with the US premiere of his opera in 1953, was well received at the time. It was subsequently rather overshadowed by his 1964 stereo version, made in London and featuring a number of British singers from a famous Sadler’s Wells production. That later recording is available as part of a newly-reissued 22 disc set of all Stravinsky’s stereo recordings made for Columbia/CBS in the 1960s, a fantastic bargain at around £30.
Stravinsky had led the premiere of the opera in Venice in 1951, a performance that is now also available on CD, albeit in rather indifferent sound. That version is notable for the brilliance of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Anne Trulove.
The Met performance opened on 14 February 1953 under the baton of Fritz Reiner; Stravinsky had been in attendance throughout rehearsals. Writing subsequently in The New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson felt that “the musical production was surely, at least from the instrumental point of view, definitive. From the vocal point of view it was also virtually perfect, though the singers were not, as a cast of singers never is, uniformly powerful in dramatic impersonation.

“Mack Harrell, as Nick Shadow, the devil-valet, gave us everything - fine vocalism, fine verbal clarity and a strong projection of character. Eugene Conley, as the Rake, sang angelically and did a lot with his words, too, though I suspect that he could have done more if he had been less preoccupied with vocal resonance. More color and less loudness might have added a welcome variety to his part and would surely have helped him to differentiate vowel sounds. He did, however, articulate the wide vocal skips without going off pitch and gave to his difficult role a musicianly reading infinitely agreeable.

“Hilde Gueden, as the faithful sweetheart, was equally handsome vocally but verbally almost a complete loss, since her English diction is of the sketchiest. Its fault is not her German accent, which nobody, I am sure, would greatly mind if she pronounced with more confidence. She simply did not project either vowels or consonants. And since the role of Anne Trulove, a sort of Micaela, is dramatically one-dimensional, its only hope for audience sympathy lies in a full exploitation of the musical and poetic beauties of its formal arias. Musical beauty Miss Gueden gave us to the full; for this she was ideally cast. The rest of the cast, including the chorus, both sang and pronounced to perfection.”
With the work thoroughly under their collective skins the Met cast moved to the studios in March, with the composer taking over from Reiner as conductor. The virtues and otherwise of the theatre production which Thomson identified in his review have transferred faithfully on to record. Andrew Porter, in his 1956 Record Guide Supplement review of the performance admitted to a difference of editorial opinion as to the relative merits of Stravinsky’s opera. He thought more highly of the piece than did his colleagues Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor although he recognised it was “highly artificial, in plot as in expression”.  The performance itself, he felt, was “first-rate” and the recording admirably clear. Of the performers he agreed with Virgil Thomson in singling out Mack Harrell’s Nick Shadow for particular praise; Hilde Gueden was “a good interpreter” of Anne Trulove while Eugene Conley was “strong, clean and true” as Tom Rakewell. American accents here and there intruded, no more so than when “the company of whores enunciates the word ‘curious’, they suddenly stop being London ladies of the town, and the mind boggles at an involuntary picture of a gaggle of midwestern Mommas disporting themselves.” Indeed!
Listening to this performance after over half a century later it is easy to forget one of the most striking aspects of the music when the opera was new - the deliberate archaism of the musical language and structures. Stravinsky spoke of wishing to emulate the “Italian-Mozart” style but it is often The Beggar’s Opera which is called to mind, both musically and in its Hogarthian setting. This must have been a challenge to opera singers more familiar with the verismo or Wagnerian traditions, but generally all acquit themselves well.
In Act 1 the three principal characters – Rakewell, Anne and Nick Shadow – are introduced to us early in the proceedings. Gueden’s diction is certainly indistinct but she conveys well the character’s ingenuous innocence, Harrell provides a suave and commanding Shadow and Conley sings with ringing, heroic tone that is not inappropriate at conveying Tom’s arrogance. Later in the Act his “Love, too frequently betrayed” is sung with appropriately dark tone that hints at the tragedy to come. Hilde Gueden sings Anne Trulove’s scena that closes the Act with depth of feeling in her aria and brilliance in the cabaletta, if without the sheer energy and resolve that Schwarzkopf brought to the part.
At the opening of Act 2 Conley effectively conveys Tom’s frustration as he realises that the delights of London have begun to pale, but musters heroic tone for “My tale shall be told” with its duet with Shadow. Blanche Thebom makes a suitably imperious Baba.
The auction scene which opens the Third Act is energetic and rhythmically pointed under the composer’s baton, and Paul Franke is characterful enough as the auctioneer Sellem if without the wit and elegance that Hugues Cuénod brought to the role in the premiere. The sepulchral darkness of the churchyard scene is chillingly conveyed, with Eugene Conley managing well the florid divisions of Tom’s music as the trap closes round him. Mack Harrell captures the demonic suavity of Shadow as he believes victory is his, becoming powerfully dramatic as he loses the card game to Tom and curses him with insanity.
In the final Bedlam scene Conley makes little attempt to vary his tone to suggest Tom’s madness, but Gueden sings “Gently, little boat” with touching simplicity. The final pay-off to the audience is effectively done.
It’s been fascinating to hear this performance, unavailable for many years. There’s a real sense of occasion, of familiarity with the work which comes from stage experience and which has carried well into the studio. Eugene Conley and Mack Harrell provide involving performances, contrasting with Hilde Gueden’s beautifully sung but disappointingly disengaged approach. The performers give a thoroughly idiomatic account of the music, although occasionally American accents and inflexions create the curious illusion that we have strayed into Broadway! Stravinsky conducts throughout with élan and authority.
Booklet notes contain an interesting article on the background to the opera, the Met performances and biographical sketches on each artist. There are no texts but a brief track-by-track synopsis. Transfers are excellent and spacious.
Ewan McCormick

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