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Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714–1787)
Don Juan - ballet in four acts (1761)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759) Ariodante: Ouverture; Sinfonia pastorale; Ballo; Il Pastor Fido: Ouverture; March, Air pour les chasseurs I, II
Simon Preston (Gluck), Colin Tilney (Handel) (harpsichord continuo)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner
rec. Decca Studios No. 3, West Hampstead, London, May 1967 (Gluck), 1971 (Handel).
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 2440 [69:17]
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Gluck’s Don 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Göran Forsling



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