Curiously, Stravinsky’s The Rake's Progress and the Royal Festival Hall make a rather good match. Both are products of 1951; both are very much of their time; both are looking remarkably good for their age (yes, I know some quibble about the RFH’s acoustic, but let’s leave that aside for now). Bringing them together just seems natural, and besides, the resident London Philharmonic Orchestra could hardly ignore this masterpiece in its continuing Changing Faces series, which celebrates the work of the composer who said “I am an inventor of music.”

Vladimir Jurowski © Simon Jay Price
Vladimir Jurowski
© Simon Jay Price

Inventor, certainly, but also a self-confessed thief of others styles and motifs. In The Rake’s Progress, the radical Stravinsky reached back to Mozart, Handel and others to craft a score for an 18th-century morality tale (inspired by Hogarth) that uses the conventions of aria and recitative in a totally fresh, 20th-century manner. 

Given the hold that productions such as Glyndebourne’s have on this piece (who can forget those Hockney sets?) it was good to hear it lifted out of the opera house and onto the concert platform. The LPO has played this opera many times in the past down in Sussex; now, freed from the pit, we could revel in the fine detail of Stravinsky’s luminous, idiosyncratic score, and admire the necessarily firm direction of conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who kept everything moving at a cracking pace.

Planning for this event had not been without incident; three of the principals originally advertised had to withdraw – Allan Clayton (Tom Rakewell), Miah Persson (Anne Trulove) and Patricia Bardon (Baba the Turk) – to be replaced by Toby Spence, Sophia Burgos and the countertenor Andrew Watts.

For the most part, they proved inspired choices. Toby Spence sang with his customary warmth and beauty, with a tonal colour perfectly suited to the wide-eyed Rakewell, his voice darkening and hollowing as his character descended into penury and madness. Andrew Watts put in an outrageous turn as a high-camp Baba the Turk, proving highly adept at running in five-inch heels and easily rising above the orchestra with his strong, incisive alto. The same, however, could not be said for sweet-voiced Sophia Burgos. While she portrayed  perfectly the faithful innocence of Anne, too often the finer points of her singing were lost in the depths of Stravinsky’s orchestral texture.

Matthew Rose © Lena Kern
Matthew Rose
© Lena Kern

You feel for singers who have to appear on stage with the bass Matthew Rose. He has a presence that demands attention and a voice so pure, so resonant, so rich that he eclipses all those around him. His Nick Shadow dominated the stage, and yet was never entirely sinister. He’s a natural comic and with his too-short trousers and a sleazy, droopy moustache, his Shadow made us laugh far more than tremble.

Kim Begley was suitably pompous as the auctioneer Sellem and Clive Bayley as reliable as ever as Father Trulove. London Voices proved a game chorus of whores, roaring boys, servants, citizens and madmen, singing with admirable precision in whatever guise they found themselves.

Excellent diction throughout underscored the brilliance of WH Auden and Chester Kallman’s poetic libretto and having all the principals “off-book” made the evening so much more fluent than traditional concert performances. With the addition of just a few props and some imaginative, but sadly uncredited, direction (using the organ console as Baba’s sedan chair, for instance), this was a performance to treasure.