Gluck: Alceste

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Gluck
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Alceste
PERFORMER: Kirsten Flagstad, Raoul Jobin, Alexander Young, Marion Lowe, Thomas Hemsley, Joan ClarkGeraint Jones Singers & Orchestra/Geraint Jones
CATALOGUE NO: 436 234-2 ADD Reissue
The period-instrument movement has had such an influence on performances of Gluck, that this epic recording, made in 1956, comes as a surprise. Its grandeur and scale – though striking – serve to overwhelm the subtlety of the score and its poignant, though ultimately uplifting text.

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By casting two, admittedly great, singers at the end of their careers -the legendary Wagner soprano Kirsten Flagstad and the Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin – the sense of the opera’s romantic ardour is lost. Their immaculate musicianship cannot be faulted, but dramatically the singing seems overblown and inappropriate. (This is even more evident in the five Handel arias – including two from Messiah — lugubriously sung by Flagstad in heavily accented English, that conclude disc three.) The subsidiary singers, Alexander Young and Marion Lowe, are more convincing as the confidants Evandro and Ismene, and the young Thomas Hemsley is impressive in three minor roles.

The orchestra, conducted by the harpsichordist and impresario Geraint Jones (who had worked with Flagstad – and Hemsley — in 1951-53 on 86 performances of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to raise money for Bernard Miles’s Mermaid Theatre), produces a sound of impeccable tautness and precision, marked by atmospheric, almost otherworldly brass and woodwind.

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Whatever the imperfections, it is good to have a recording available of the original 1767 Italian version (both the rival version with Jessye Norman, and Covent Garden’s notable 1981 production with Janet Baker, used the later French edition). It’s a shame, however, that there are no notes or introduction to accompany die discs. Claire Wrathall