Colin Davis’ “Oedipus Rex” One More Reason to Hate Record Companies

Oedipus Rex CD cover

STRAVINSKY: Oedipus Rex / Sir Ralph Richardson, narrator; Ronald Dowd, tenor (Oedipus); Patricia Johnson, mezzo (Jocasta); Raimund Herincx, baritone (Creon); Harold Blackburn, bass (Tiresias/Messenger); Alberto Remedios, tenor (Shepherd); Sadler’s Wells Opera Chorus; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Colin Davis, conductor / Classics for Pleasure 85011 (out of print), also available as part of “Colin Davis: Icon – The Early Recordings” (6 CDs), Warner Classics 63989

As a free-market capitalist, you absolutely have to detest corporations, particularly mega-corporations, and even more specifically mega-corporations that own old books and recordings. Unwilling to make anything available that doesn’t net them immediate huge profits, unwilling to leave great recordings in print if the bottom net line isn’t in the black, and so damn greedy that they couldn’t leave the 50-year copyright law in place in the U.S. They just had to extend it to 100 years plys the lifespan of the artist.

And we all know that the only reason they’re doing this is essentially to have a lock for the lifespan of all their executives and their executives’ heirs lives of basically four artists: Elvis Presley, Maria Callas, Glenn Gould and The Beatles. THE. END. They are the ONLY past artists they give a crap about because their recordings were, and continue to be, a goldmine no matter now many times they’re reissued, but because they have to pretend that they care about Otto Klemperer, Colin Davis, Artur Rubinstein, Yehudi Menuhin, etc., etc., etc. they rammed the 100-years-plus-life law through the American court system, and not one politician on either side of the aisle had the guts to strike that law down and declare it null and void. This is why I try to make as many old recordings available for free as possible, because the law doesn’t say you can’t give them away, just that you aren’t allowed to make money on them. (You can’t, however, give away recordings within the old 50-year copyright law, which is OK for me.)

This May 1960 recording of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, the first (quite surprising) stage success for young conductor Colin Davis, is one of the most sought-after of his early discs. Because the cast was only comprised of British and Australian singers, none of whom had international reputations at the time, EMI shelved the recording for three years before issuing it. Strike one! Then they decided to replace the original narrator with Sir Ralph Richardson, not a bad idea at all (for the French market they dubbed in Jean Marais instead of Richardson), but when the LP was issued only Richardson’s and Davis’ names were on the front cover. Strike two! Then they cut the recording from the catalogue about three years after that, and never reissued it on either vinyl or CD. Strike three! Finally, 43 years after it was recorded, it appeared on a “Classics for Pleasure” CD, which was—again—cut from the catalogue after another few years. Strike four! And now, it is only available from Warner Classics as part of a six-CD set—Icon: Colin Davis, The Early Recordings—in which it is shoved among numerous irrelevant performances of Mozart and Rossini opera overtures, the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, and other things that don’t appeal to people who like Oedipus Rex. Strike five!

Ronald Dowd as Oedipus2

Ronald Dowd as Oedipus

I think you can see where this is going, but let’s focus in on the main reason why I’m so angry. This is, on balance, the best stereo and/or digital recording of Oedipus Rex ever made. Yes, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sir Georg Solti and late-period Robert Craft conduct the music with a bit more power and momentum than Davis, but not much, and each of those recordings have badly flawed soloists with defective voices and/or wobbles. No one on the Davis recording has even the hint of a wobble, and in fact Australian tenor Ronald Dowd sings the role of Oedipus better than anyone else in the history of recording, even better than Peter Pears. The Salonen recording is also marred by a peculiarity: after going out and hiring Patrice Chéreau to speak the lines of the narrator, they decided to omit some of his narrative. (The narrator on the late Craft recording is so boring that he sounds as if he’s reading out the prices of pork futures.) Richardson is a little bit over-the-top, and for some reason he keeps pronouncing Oedipus’ name as “Ee-di-puss,” but by and large he’s interesting and knits the performance together.

So here you have a near-Gold Standard reading of Stravinsky’s wonderful but difficult score, and you can’t even buy the darn thing unless you spend $43 on the box set with all that extra music you probably don’t want…plus it doesn’t have a libretto. Strike Six? Hey, why not? But if you go to Amazon, you’ll discover that you can buy a used copy of the original single CD from 2003 for prices ranging from $75 to $195. WHAT? $195 for a 50-minute CD? I wouldn’t spend that even if Jesus K. God was the narrator and lead tenor.

But be of good cheer! Since for whatever reason Warner Classics has uploaded this entire performance on YouTube, my attitude is that it’s fair game—take it if you want it:

Act 1:

  1. The version of Oedipus Rex which you are about to hear
  2. Caedit nos pestis, Theba peste moritur
  3. Liberi, vos liberabo
  4. Here is Creon… Respondit Deus
  5. Non repeias vetus scelus
  6. Oedipus questions the fountain of truth… Delie, exspectamus
  7. Dicere non possum, dicere non lice
  8. Invidia fortunam odit
  9. Gloria, Gloria, Gloria!

Act 2:

  1. The quarrel between the princes brings Jocasta onto the scene
  2. Nonne erubescite, reges
  3. Ego senem cecedi
  4. A shepherd, the witness to the crime, appears… Adest omniscius pastor
  5. Oportebat tacere, nunquam loqui
  6. Nonne monstrum rescituri
  7. In monte reppertus est
  8. And now you will hear the messenger
  9. Divum Jocastae caput mortuum!

Enjoy! And don’t say I never give you anything.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “Colin Davis’ “Oedipus Rex” One More Reason to Hate Record Companies

  1. Pinza UK says:

    Highly entertaining review, thank you, and I agree with your comments on EMI’s shocking attitude! Just to say that “EE-Dipuss” is standard British English pronunciation of the name, so it only seems odd to our Transatalantic friends such as yourself. It’s a great performance.


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