Stravinsky The Rake's Progress

Author: 
Michael Oliver
Stravinsky's The Rake’s ProgressStravinsky's The Rake’s Progress

STRAVINSKY The Rake's Progress

  • (The) Rake's Progress

There has never been a downright bad recording of The Rake’s Progress (though Esa-Pekka Salonen’s NVC video of it, 2/99, is senselessly cut), but every one of them so far has had one or more flaws of casting, so it was well worth Gardiner’s and DG’s while to bring out a new version. In all but one respect it easily withstands comparison with its five rivals, and in several it surpasses them; if you find Terfel’s Nick Shadow less worrying than I do it can be set alongside Stravinsky’s own 1964 recording as the finest available.
Gardiner is conscious throughout that this is a chamber opera, and the orchestral textures are outstandingly clean and transparent, the rhythmic pointing crisp but airy. This enables his cast to give a fast-moving, conversational account of the text, with every word crystal-clear (including those from the chorus) and no need for any voice to force. This benefits the soprano and tenor especially. Deborah York, in her first operatic recording, sounds a very young and touchingly vulnerable Anne; I began by thinking the voice a little pale, but was won over by the pathos as well as the brilliance of her Act 1 aria and moved by the desolation of her reaction to Tom’s marriage to Baba the Turk (‘I see, then: it was I who was unworthy’); her Act 3 lullaby has an affecting, child-like quality. Ian Bostridge is the best Tom Rakewell since Alexander Young in Stravinsky’s recording: he too sounds likeably youthful, sings with intelligence and sweetness of tone and acts very well. Howells is an unexaggerated Mother Goose, and von Otter’s economy of comic gesture is a marvel. ‘Finish, if you please, whatever business is detaining you with this person’ receives the full Lady Bracknell treatment from most mezzos; von Otter gives it the vocal equivalent of a nose wrinkled in well-bred disdain.
Terfel often demonstrates that he can fine his big voice down to the subtlety of the other principals, and when he does he is a formidably dangerous, insinuating Shadow. But almost as often he not only lets the voice rip but indulges in histrionics quite uncharacteristic of the performance as a whole. You may not mind: why after all should the Devil restrainedly under-act? It bothered me, though: at times he sounds bigger than the orchestra.
The other contenders, in my order of preference, are Stravinsky himself on Sony Classical (fine in all respects, despite a rather lightweight Shadow) and Kent Nagano’s Erato reading (with Dawn Upshaw, Jerry Hadley and Samuel Ramey: excellent, though Grace Bumbry’s Baba is absurdly overdone). Seiji Ozawa’s account on Philips is also admirable (Sylvia McNair and Anthony Rolfe Johnson: as good or better than Upshaw and Hadley), but ruled out by Paul Plishka’s worn and strenuous Shadow. According to your reaction to Terfel I would place Gardiner’s reading either alongside Stravinsky’s (he is a touch less mercurial than the composer but reveals even more detail; his soprano, tenor and mezzos easily rank with Stravinsky’s) or just below Nagano. In either case it has given me enormous pleasure, and I wouldn’t dream of parting with it. The recording is close but theatrically atmospheric. There are a few sound effects; the only one I minded was a distractingly raucous owl in the graveyard scene.'

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