STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress / Hilde Güden, soprano (Anne Trulove); Eugene Conley, tenor (Tom Rakewell); Mack Harrell, baritone (Nick Shadow); Blanche Thebom, mezzo-soprano (Baba the Turk); Norman Scott, bass (Trulove); Martha Lipton, mezzo-soprano (Mother Goose); Paul Franke, tenor (Sellem); Lawrence Davidson, bass (Keeper); Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Fritz Reiner, conductor / Datum 90003 (live: New York, February 14, 1953)
Here is a slice of history: the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere of Stravinsky’s neoclassic opera. It has since become a familiar and somewhat well-liked member of the standard repertoire, particularly in England where they took it to heart because of its connection to the engravings of British artist William Hogarth.
For decades one of the most sought-after but frustrating recordings as been that of the opera’s world premiere at Teatro La Fenice, conducted by the composer. The cast included the superb Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Anne, tenor Robert Rounseville as Tom, Otakar Kraus as Nick Shadow and Jennie Tourel as Baba the Turk. The singing was, and remains, excellent, but the orchestra is a complete mess, so awful in fact that Stravinsky, who conducted it, was forced to slow the whole thing down, and the sound quality is absolutely abysmal, sounding as if it were recorded on stone tablets.
This recording, though considerably cleaner, is not perfect. For one thing, conductor Fritz Reiner used a piano for the secco recitatives instead of a harpsichord, knowing that the older instrument couldn’t be heard past the tenth row at the old Met. For another, although he got surprisingly good, tight playing out of the orchestra and singing from the chorus, there are some glitches such as the overblown horns in the first scene. Reiner, who had a reputation as a musical tyrant so severe that he made Toscanini look like Simon Rattle, probably scared both the orchestra and chorus half to death in his insistence on musical accuracy. The Met chorus of the time, which normally sang like crap, gives a surprisingly crisp performance with good diction. Alas, one can barely understand soprano Hilde Güden as Anne Trulove. The problem, as Virgil Thomson pointed out, wasn’t her German accent so much as the fact that “She simply did not project either vowels or consonants.” The voices are nonetheless well recorded, with a fair amount of natural hall reverb around them. It’s the orchestra that suffers from boxy, claustrophobic sound, despite the fine playing. George Balanchine’s staging and choreography is, of course, impossible to capture on a sound recording.
In addition to her problems with English diction, Güden continually sounds as if she is over-singing in order to fill the large space that was the old Met. Nearly all of her high notes sound yelled, not properly sung, and one or two are suspect in pitch. And wait ‘til you hear the Met audience. Good old Met audience, not waiting until the music is finished in any scene but bursting into inane applause at the appearance of each and every high note. They spoil the end of many scenes with this childishness, particularly the fine orchestral music that closes out Anne’s Act 1 aria, “No word from Tom.”
That being said, for the most part the singing is exemplary in every way. Eugene Conley was a vastly underrated tenor, disliked in his day because he didn’t have as glamorous a tone as that of Jussi Björling, Richard Tucker or Giuseppe di Stefano, yet a singer with superb voice control, resonance and phrasing. His diction is excellent, as is that of Mack Harrell as Nick Shadow, and sadly this is one of only six complete recordings featuring his voice. The other five are Stokowski’s 1950 performance of the Mahler Eighth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, a 1951 Columbia recording of Faust with Eleanor Steber, the 1953 studio recording of The Rake’s Progress conducted by the composer, and both a live performance and a studio recording of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis conducted by Arturo Toscanini. True, he has a little trouble with the florid passages, but overall he presents a real character and a sympathetic one.
Some critics have complained that Harrell’s Nick Shadow is too benign a character, but that is undoubtedly due to our expectations today than to those of 1953. I think he, and Reiner, saw Shadow as being more benign than the “nyah-hah-hah” melodrama of Gounod’s Mephistopheles. Surely Berlioz’ Mephisto is jollier and less snarly than Gounod’s as well. I’m sure that if Stravinsky were unhappy with him he’d have replaced him when the studio recording, with a sadly reduced orchestra, was made for Columbia in early March 1953.
On balance, however, I’d have to give the edge to this performance—dry sound and all—over that first Stravinsky recording. One of the glories of this version is the Baba of Blanche Thebom, an outstanding mezzo who, like Conley, received short shrift on records, but who today we would kill for, particularly when we suffer through such wobbling horrors as Dagmar Pečková on the DVD performance conducted by Kazushi Ono. And WOW is her diction flawless!! I thought Jennie Tourel was an excellent Baba in the world premiere recording, but Thebom has it all over her, particularly in terms of humor and technical control of the voice. She’s even a better Baba than Wendy White on the otherwise-excellent Robert Craft recording.
As the performance progresses and everyone seems to be more relaxed and in control of their resources, you start to appreciate its good qualities. It’s not a keeper for those who already have the overall superb Craft recording on Naxos or even that Kazushi Ono DVD, which benefits from the absolutely sterling performances of Laura Claycombe (Anne), Andrew Kennedy (Tom) and especially William Shimell (Nick), but as an historical performance and one that had the composer’s blessing—he attended most of the rehearsals and was reportedly quite pleased—it’s better than Stravinsky’s stereo remake of 1964, which gets (to my mind) unmerited raves. Collectors may, however, prefer the studio recording under Stravinsky’s direction for the simple reason that you don’t have stage noise or that miserable audience clapping all over the music.
Two little complaints in the misspellings on the back cover inlay. The principal character’s name is Tom Rakewell, not Rackewell, and the librettist’s first name was Wystan, not Wynston. Otherwise, a fine performance with a real sense of occasion, something you clearly don’t get from most of today’s “autopilot” performances.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge