Juan was premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 17
October 1761 and was a great success, just as much thanks
to the choreography as to Gluck’s music. Count Zinzendorf,
who saw the performance, wrote in his diary “ ... extremely
sad, lugubrious and frightening ... Hell appears, furies
dance with lighted torches and torment Don Juan; in the background
a splendid firework represents hellfire. Devils are seen
flying. The ballet goes on a long time; at last the devils
carry Don Juan away and leap with him into the flaming pit.
All this was excellently done, the music being very fine.” Reading
this colourful description it is obvious that this was a
spectacular event indeed and the music, as Count Zinzendorf
writes, is very fine but to today’s listeners, used
to the orchestral resources of the 19th century
and thereafter it is fairly pale, well-behaved, too idyllic.
Not until the middle of the third act, when the Commandant
arrives at Don Juan’s party is there a real feeling of drama.
Here the music is dark and menacing and one can hear the
guests running about in fear. The short fourth act, which
is what Count Zinzendorf concentrates on, which takes place
among the tombs, is chilling with ominous brass. “The ballet
goes on a long time” he writes; in this recording the whole
fourth act takes little more than six minutes. The booklet
has a short synopsis, not too detailed, and it is not too
easy to figure out exactly what happens when, but there is
no denying that the music is full of variety and the orchestration
is also varied. The pity is that there doesn’t exist a detailed
description of the choreography, so we have to make do with
this very imprecise synopsis. Some of the dances are not
more than background music to the dancing and it sometimes
gives the same effect as listening to film music without
the pictures. Much is charming, however, and the work has
a position in the history of ballet comparable to the composer’s Orfeo
ed Euridice to the history of opera. The ballet is given
complete, with the exception that the Andante staccato (No.
26) is not repeated as No. 29, but that doesn’t matter much.
Most of the dances are short, lasting two to three minutes
and each number is not separately cued: they are grouped
in pairs, but that is also easy to accept.
fillers, excerpts from two Handel works, are also mostly idyllic,
but Handel in general was a more dynamic composer and the faster
dances, as played here, are bouncy and energetic. We have come
to expect stylish playing of whatever music the ASMF lay their
hands on and this is no exception. Period instruments might
have given some added edge to the performances but for fine
middle of the road performances on modern instruments this
is hard to beat. The sound quality is first class, exactly
what one could expect from vintage Deccas with Erik Smith and
Michael Bremner as producers.
am not sure I will return to this music very often, but when
I do I will know that I won’t be let down by the performances.
Playing time is generous and at the Eloquence price it won’t
dig deep holes in the wallet.