Stateside, at least, the Gluck recording never saw a full-price vinyl
issue, with London Records - as Decca's American branch was
then known - relegating it directly to the budget-priced Stereo
Treasury line. The Eloquence CD, while not an unpleasant hour,
helps clarify the reasons for that soft-sell.
The Don Juan score itself isn't really from Gluck's top drawer.
The composer's ear for orchestral timbre assures some coloristic
interest. The overture's bright, reedy tang of unison oboes
and violins yields to an airier "open" sound in
movements where the flutes assume the doubling duties. In
the Grazioso of Act III (track 12), duetting oboes
riding on plucked strings are piquant and refreshing. But
most of the themes themselves aren't memorable: the melodic
gestures are too frequently generic, yet the occasional innovations
- the unresolved long appoggiature in track 15, for
example - don't come off either. And several brief movements,
presumably intended to accompany specific bits of stage action,
simply make a disjointed effect as "absolute music."
An outstanding performance might have helped, but this one doesn't
quite get over the hurdles. Some of the dance movements, especially
the minuets (tracks 7 and 12), go with a pleasing lilt, even
a soupçon of charm.
An active harpsichord is clearly audible, to positive effect.
In the Presto of Act II (track 9), the violins provide
ample thrust without sacrificing tonal beauty, and their slow
descending chromatics in track 11 fill out nicely. But elsewhere
much of the playing, while unexceptionable, is pretty but
static, lacking tensile strength, or even much clear direction.
The Gavotte at the start of Act II (track 5) sings
easily, but soft-edged attacks compromise the rhythmic address.
The string tremolos are played clearly, but rarely convey
the anticipatory frisson that surely is implied in
the writing, especially in a stage work. Such moments foreshadow
the thoroughly professional but phlegmatic, almost jaded playing
of the St. Martin's of later years.
Finally, the engineering is just decent. Certainly we can hear those
violin/reed doublings clearly, but a slight overhang on the
batteria militates against crispness and overlays an
artificial gloss on the instrumental timbres.
The Handel selections are drawn from a program that did get
a full-priced release (Argo ZRG 686); presumably intended
as mere makeweight, they rather show up the Gluck performance.
Marriner projects his tempi, ideally chosen to balance forward
drive and clarity, with alert rhythmic acumen. The orchestral
sonority is firmly grounded in the bass; the quieter passages
retain a full-bodied ease, with delicate oboes sharply defined
against a trim, dark background of strings. And the sound
is cleaner and more gratifyingly immediate.
I'd recommend this album for the Handel tracks - which, incidentally,
are misidentified on the box, and differently but still confusingly
labeled in the booklet - but it might be worth waiting for
Decca to reissue ZRG 686, which also included the overture
and ballet music from Alcina, in its entirety. It'd
be worth the wait, especially if filled out with, say, Marriner's
Royal Fireworks Music. Don Juan is for specialists
see also Reviews
by Paul Shoemaker and Göran