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Robert Craft first met Stravinsky on the same day that Auden delivered the completed libretto to the composer, and was directly involved in what he describes as "the first step" in the composition of The Rake' Progress. This was principally with regard
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So what about this budget-priced set from Naxos? Well, it was originally issued in 1993 on Music Masters and is really excellent sound for that time. The conductor is, of course, the leading Stravinsky conductor of our time. Robert Craft, as it happens, met Stravinsky for the first time in 1948 on the very day that W. H. Auden delivered the Rake libretto to the composer. And indeed Craft helped Stravinsky with his setting of English text as at the time Stravinsky's English was not fluent. He has led a number of productions of the opera. This one was recorded at SUNY Purchase with a cast of young American singers, most of whom are not well-known, the exception being John Cheek as Nick Shadow. But the young, unknown cast is not a problem. Each of them is quite good. Jayne West has a rich, creamy soprano and she makes a lovely, innocent, loving Anne. Her lullaby, 'Gently little boat', is as moving as one is likely to hear. Jon Garrison's Tom Rakewell is finely sung but a little undercharacterized, I feel. His insouciance in Act I and his desperation in Act III is less convincing than one might want. As Nick Shadow, John Cheek's voice is as rich as I've ever heard it. He certainly has command of the part and his character has command of the situation. He could perhaps be a little more sly, but that's a small complaint. Wendy White's Baba the Turk is funny without being a caricature. The other minor parts and the chorus are first-rate.
But the real star of this recording is Robert Craft and the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Gregg Smith Singers are simply superb. Craft's molding of the score is more pointed than that of the composer himself. He moves the performance right along, which is absolutely appropriate for this score, and actually takes about ten minutes less than Stravinsky. Other conductors of the score -- Haitink, Nagano -- are a bit more rounded. I've always felt that the score requires an almost expressionistic edge and Craft does that better than anyone but the composer. I would not be without other recorded performances, but for someone with a limited budget this set will more than do.
I will point out, however, for those who have a DVD player they might want to consider getting the Glyndebourne performance because it is only slightly more costly than this Naxos 2CD set and it is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.
Kent Nagano is better on the podium, and he has a sparkling Dawn Upshaw as Anne, but Samuel Ramey sounds too old and woolly-voiced as Nick, and Jerry Hadley, who had the best voice for Tom since Young, offers a stitled portrayal that's hard to listen to, much less sympathize with. On a deleted Philips set Sylvia McNair makes a very good, pure lyric Anne, but then things go sour. Anthony Rolfe-Johnson is a wonderful tenor in the light English style, but he is twenty years too old for the title role, ditto Paul Plishka's dull Nick, and Seiji Ozawa conducts limply in many places. You'd think that The Rake's Progress was hard to cast, but beyond Anne's difficult coloratura aria and Bab the Turk's similar imitation of Handel, the missteps in finding a good Tom and Nick are baffling.
Having said that, Robert Craft's newly reissued set, which first appeared on MusicMaster, is the least inspired of all. Craft conducts mechanically and proficiently, barely touching on the score's incredible depth of wit and pathos. All the singers are competent but totally bereft of personality, and Tom barely begins to characterize is part. Nothing sounds amateurish, but none of the singers seems to have developed their roles onstage. As a reliable sketch of the score, Craft's version may have some value, but for sheer delight, one has to go with the composer's stereo set, one of the gems in the entire catalog of modern opera.
First, the conducting of Mr Craft is bracing, marvelous in detail and in thrust. Then, the casting of the lovers could not be bettered: The underrated and under-recorded Jayne West (perhaps best-known as Peter Sellars' Contessa Almaviva, in his film of "Le nozze di Figaro") is sublime as Anne Trulove; she is an exquisitely musical singing-actress. Jon Garrison, as Tom Rakewell, is heard here in his finest recording, where he is an ideal match for Miss West.
The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent, John Cheek's Nick Shadow especially so. The entire enterprise is treasurable.