Stravinsky The Rake's Progress

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Stravinsky The Rake's Progress

  • (The) Rake's Progress
  • (The) Rake's Progress

Nearly 20 years have passed since The Rake's Progress was last recorded, on CBS, under Stravinsky's own direction. That version will always have interest as a historical document, but an up-to-date recording has long been needed, with a new generation of singers. In Great Britain alone, two productions of the opera from the last decade—at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden—could have formed the basis for such recordings, with the invaluable bonus of recent experience of performance in the theatre. This new Decca issue does relate to a theatre production, but rather distantly, since it was in 1979 that the Teatro Lirico in Milan staged the work with the London Sinfonietta under Riccardo Chailly, and with Philip Langridge in the title role (all the other singers were different).
The kind of rapport one expects between conductor and performers who have recently worked together in the theatre is especially important when the conductor takes such a forceful view of the work as Chailly evidently does of The Rake, and from the outset the London Sinfonietta match him in both precision and panache. The recording gives full and appropriate prominence to the glorious sound of the Sinfonietta's woodwind section, but all departments of the ensemble are admirable. In its balance of brilliance and sensitivity, this is playing of the first class: indeed, it is so good that there seems a real danger, at least in Act 1, that the singers will be driven into subordinate roles. Samuel Ramey's distinctive, attractive timbre does make an immediate and satisfying impression: he is the wily, oily demon to the life, and the later acts he effects a transformation from sauvity to menance without sacrificing any purely musical qualities en route. Both Sarah Walker and John Dobson have made the roles of Baba and Sellem their own in the theatre, and their scenes are done with a wit which owes much to relishing the felicities of the Auden/Kallman text. (Decca uses sound effects for Baba's china smashing, and elsewhere: only that for the card shuffling in Act 3 seems slightly overdone.)
To say that Cathryn Pope makes a vividly vulnerable Anne is a mixed compliment: after all, Anne must, like her father, display ''strength of purpose''. Dramatically, the role is underplayed for the gramophone, but the voice itself is appealing, and for once we never feel that a mature, weighty soprano is trying (with less than total success) to scale her voice down to the part's essential lyricism. Youthfulness and lyricism are also the hallmarks of Philip Langridge's performance: there are moments where the voice sounds under pressure, moments where he responds too reticently to situations for the character's fecklessness and impulsiveness to come fully alive. But in the later scenes he gives a touching reality to Tom's disintegration, all the more effective for its restraint.
The Rake's Progress is emphatically not Grand Opera and can benefit greatly from being heard, as here, as in large part a chamber work. The dramatic flair and fervour evident in the conducting and orchestral playing are not always matched in the singing, and a more forward placement of the vocal lines in the recording might have helped to redress the balance a little. But although this is not the best integrated or most full-bloodedly theatrical performance imaginable, it is nonetheless an enjoyable one.'

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