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David Patrick Stearns
Gramophone, November 2008


This is more what the world premiere should’ve sounded like. Though occasionally laboured and awkward, the piece’s content is mostly there. Harrell’s artfully insinuating Shadow and Thebom’s eloquently nattering Baba indeed transcend their time and circumstances, and though Gueden is occasionally stymied by singing in English, her tone shows her in her prime.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, December 2007

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.

Ewan McCormick
MusicWeb International, November 2007

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.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

By the time the libretto for The Rakes Progress was delivered to Stravinsky in 1948, his international fame was such that he composed all of his works to specific commissions. Yet such was his desire to write a major opera that he began work on The Rake without even the basic prospect of a performance. It was to take much of his time over the next three years, eventually premiered not in a major opera house, but in his choice of the more confined space of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. It was an apt decision for the work is a chamber score less well suited to the big stage settings. The story was to relate the downfall of Tom Rakewell who in the hands of the devil - in the guise of Nick Shadow - enjoys all bodily lusts, until as a broken man he dies in the arms of Anne Trulove, the one person who really loved him. Nearly two years later, in 1953, the work was first staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York using a general purpose ‘house’ cast, the performance immediately moved into the Columbia studios with Stravinsky replacing Fritz Reiner as conductor. The cast was liberally sprinkled with star names of the time more used to singing the big romantic operas, and it is that feel they carry over into this recording. The result is a 20th century opera for those who do not like 20th century opera, Hilde Gueden sounding very much like an escapee from Viennese opera, but quite delectable as Anne, while Eugene Conley is a nicely lyric Tom. Mack Harrell became known for his portrayal of Nick Shadow and the remaining members of the cast well characterise their parts. The auction scene in the third act has tremendous impact, and there is real sadness in the act’s third scene. The Metropolitan orchestra seem a little hard pressed at times, but have more warmth than we have became used to in later performances. Stravinsky was to make a later recording in London with a very fine cast headed by the incomparable Alexander Young as Tom and a more Mozartian orchestra. It was that version which formed an adjunct to the complete recording of his orchestral works conducted by the composer for Sony. Still it is good to have his first view of the work, his tempos quite spacious and making it a tight squeeze to fit onto two discs, the second act split over two sides. With such splendid transfers it is difficult to believe the recording is now over fifty years old.

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