I fell in love with Stravinsky's 'The Rake's Progress' in the 1950s via the composer's 1953 recording of the opera with the cast, chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. Igor Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress [1953 New York Studio Recording Made for Columbia Masterworks; Hilde Gueden, Eugene Conley, Mack Harrell, Blanche Thebom, Norman Scott, Martha Lipton, Paul Franke, Lawrence Davidson; Igor Stravinsky, Cond.] (It was his second of three recordings of the opera. The first was of the original 1951 Venice production and the last was the 1964 Sadler's Wells [the latter only available in the 22 CD Stravinsky set). It starred Eugene Conley as Tom Rakewell, Hilde Gueden as Anne Trulove, Mack Harrell as Nick Shadow, and the inimitable Blanche Thebom as Baba the Turk. That recording remains for me the one I love the most, but to some extent I think it may be because it was my first love. I have also very much admired the more recent recording conducted by Kent Nagano, with Dawn Upshaw, Jerry Hadley and Samuel Ramey Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress / Upshaw, Hadley, Ramey, Bumbry; Nagano. And let us not forget the simply smashing DVD of the opera from Glyndebourne, the one that features the Hogarthian sets by David Hockney Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress / Lott, Goeke, Ramey, Elias, van Allan, Haitink, Glyndebourne Opera; THAT is the one to have on DVD.
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.