Gluck: Alceste

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Gluck
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Alceste
PERFORMER: Anne Sofie von Otter, Paul Groves, Dietrich Henschel, Yann Beuron; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 470 293-2
Gluck’s Alceste is nowadays far more famous for the reforming manifesto of its preface than for its music. There has been no recording of the 1776 French version – musically richer, dramatically tauter and more human than the monumental, monolithic Italian original – since the 1982 Orfeo set with Jessye Norman in the title role. All the more reason, then, to welcome this magnificent new recording made at a series of concerts in the Barbican. If you still cling to the notion that Gluck in general, and Alceste in particular, is austere and chilly, then Gardiner is the conductor to convert you. From the ominous opening bars of the overture, this is a reading of intense colour and vitality. Pacing is urgent and natural, rhythms light and supple. Gardiner has an unerring ear for dramatic ebb and flow, building climaxes powerfully; and with the period instruments of the English Baroque Soloists – on superb form – the originality of Gluck’s orchestration emerges all the more pungently.

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Alceste is a heroine’s opera if ever there was one. And Anne Sofie von Otter rises gloriously to the challenge of the title role. Perhaps the tone is a tad less pure than it once was, but her passionate conviction, her breadth and nobility of line and her command of fluid, idiomatic French declamation make her a tragédienne of rare eloquence. Predictably, von Otter creates a less regal, more vulnerably human figure than Norman, with altogether more tenderness and inwardness to her opening aria and her anguished prayer to the gods of the underworld, ‘Ah! Divinités implacables’.

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Admète, the husband for whom Alceste resolves to sacrifice her life, is for much of the opera condemned to passivity. But Paul Groves, with a graceful style and a plangent timbre reminiscent of Léopold Simoneau, takes his chances both in the anguished exchanges of Act II and his tormented aria in Act III. Among the subsidiary roles, all well taken, Dietrich Henschel impresses as the High Priest and the bluff, jaunty Hercules who rescues Alceste from Hades; and in its all-important role the Monteverdi Choir sings with its trademark incisiveness and dramatic involvement.