double play: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...

Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Jerry Hadley (tenor), Samuel Ramey (baritone), Grace Bumbry (mezzo) Chorus and Orchestra of the Lyon Opera /Kent Nagano (Erato 0630-12715-2; two discs)
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The Independent Culture
'There's a ruthless efficiency at work here, a keen, objective ear for the plangency of Stravinsky's scoring - so much as to suggest pastiche Stravinsky at times'

'The Orchestra of the Opera de Lyon play cleanly and with some elegance ... but there's little sense of dramatic inevitability ... perhaps this is why the singing fails to ignite'

The shock of the old made new. Stravinsky's Rake comes with an awful lot of history. Pastiche or plunder or both? To some it is a cold fish, emotionally remote (Stravinsky doesn't tell you how he feels: you just know), to others it's little more than the sum of its parts - or is that past? And yet this preoccupation with the past, this neo-classicism, is not in any sense academic. Or merely imitative. Rake wears style like changes of costume: it explodes on to the stage in a flurry of neo-renaissance trumpetings, it fondly alludes to Gluck, Handel, Pergolesi, Donizetti, Rossini ... the list goes on. But pastiche? Of what is Tom Rakewell's ravishing cavatina "Love, too frequently betrayed" a pastiche? Or Anne's lullaby "Gently, little boat" - so haunted, so strangely familiar that you forget how original it is. The expression runs too deep for pastiche; and the composer is surely Stravinsky. Through and through.

Kent Nagano makes that abundantly clear in this crisp, newly laundered account of the score. There's a ruthless efficiency at work here, a keen, objective ear for the plangency of Stravinsky's scoring - so much so as to suggest, dare I say it, pastiche Stravinsky at times. It's Hogarth in black and white, sharp, cool, abstract - beautiful. As witness Nagano's lonely Lyon trumpeter in the prelude to Act 2, scene 2. Indeed, all the instrumental obbligatos. We seem always to have known Dawn Upshaw's Anne Truelove through that aria, the aria, and while the fizzing coloratura (and clinching top C) of the cabaletta is hardly as effortless now as it was on her debut album, the honesty and intensity of her manner still communicate volumes.

In Samuel Ramey's Nick Shadow we've a past master of Mephistophelean mellifluousness. Grace Bumbry - overripe and over here - as Baba, the Turk, was a nice idea in theory, if not in practice: the "American" accent grates somewhat, and I'm not at all sure that her pneumatic yodelling is quite what Stravinsky had in mind (this Baba shatters plates without throwing them).

But the Rake himself - Jerry Hadley - is top drawer. It's an easy role to undercast - go for the lyricism without the resilience or stamina (it's a deceptively long role) and you're in trouble. I like Hadley's laddishness, his knowingness, cynicism. There's an edge to him. But come the final scene, he softens touchingly into the sweet songfulness of madness. Suddenly, you feel the heart of the Rake beating. ES

Whatever critics may tell you, Stravinsky's recordings are not "definitive"; no recording is. But once you've heard The Rake's Progress in Stravinsky's studio version, it's terribly difficult to get it out of your head - the scalpel-sharp articulation, the sinewy rhythms, the energy in each note. There may be scope for enriching the expression, and Stravinsky's cast, good as it is, isn't ideal, but that sound stays fixed in the mind. It takes a really exceptional performance to make you forget it.

This new version falls some way short of that. The Orchestra of the Opera de Lyon play cleanly and with some elegance for Kent Nagano, but muscular brilliance is in short supply. The pacing is good; everything slots into place effectively enough, but there's little sense of dramatic inevitability, fate in action. Perhaps this is why the singing fails to ignite. The cast are - no, "efficient" is unkind - but there's no thrill and little pathos. Even Dawn Upshaw, musical and pure in tone as ever, gives less than her best: in the wonderful Act 1 scena, "No word from Tom", she sounds uncomfortable with some of Nagano's tempi - as though she wants more time to allow the phrases to speak.

As Nick Shadow, Samuel Ramey is disappointingly characterless - this is supposed to be the Devil, where's the insidious charm, the malevolence? His dealings with Jerry Hadley's Tom are clearly a case of the bland leading the bland - another surprisingly uncompelling performance, with little depth of character. The minor comic roles: Steven Cole's Sellem the auctioneer and Grace Bumbry's Baba the Turk leave still less of an impression. But then, take a look at the recording dates on the back of the box: July 1995, January and March 1996 - can you really hope for dramatic continuity with a timetable like that? SJ