A week or so ago, I was asked if I might give some recommendations concerning recordings of Gluck. So as not unduly to repeat myself, here in this earlier posting are some of my reasons for pressing his cause so strongly, not just in his tercentenary but in any year.
Orfeo et Euridice remains, of course, Gluck’s most celebrated work, even if for many of us, Iphigénie en Tauride is the greatest of all his ‘reform operas’. Even those thinking them entirely ignorant of the composer’s œuvre are likely to know ‘Che faro senza Euridice,’ perhaps via Kathleen Ferrier, or Dame Janet Baker, and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, even though it does not actually belong to Gluck’s original version at all. The question of versions is somewhat vexed. We are probably best off simply to celebrate the options open to us and not to become too concerned with choosing one over the other. For the ‘pure’ 1762 version – if not quite so ‘pure’ as many think it, Gluck even here recycling some earlier music – Riccardo Muti, ever the purist, with Agnes Baltsa in the title role and the Philharmonia would be my recommendation. When it comes to the 1774 revision for Paris, Orphée et Eurydice, with a tenor in the title role, then the style, elegance, and yet also depth of feeling offered by Léopold Simoneau and Suzanne Danco, have never been surpassed, probably not equalled; the great Hans Rosbaud conducts. (Incidentally, if you do not know his recording of Rameau’s Platée, you should. It is not all Webern in Rosbaud-land.) If, however, you would like a composite version, in which to a considerable extent the best of both worlds is achieved, Raymond Leppard with Dame Janet, post-Glyndebourne, should be your first port of call. It may be ‘wrong’, but, should you hanker after a deeper male voice in an ‘inauthentic’ version, then Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s typical intelligent reading with Karl Richter (and Gundula Janowitz!) will fit the bill. Finally, sui generis, as an ‘historic’ recording, whose depth of tragic feeling has never been approached and most likely will never be again, there is Wilhelm Furtwängler from La Scala. Overlook the wretched choral singing if you can, and revelations will be yours.
Iphigénie en Tauride is, as I said, probably the greatest of Gluck’s dramas. There is certainly nothing in his œuvre to match the astonishing opening sequence, moving from minuet (Le calme) to tempest, plunging us into the action as surely as Wagner in Die Walküre. Muti’s incandescent reading, this time from La Scala, has no peers. Carol Vaness, Gösta Winbergh, and Thomas Allen are amongst the excellent cast.
Another conductor who has shown great commitment to the Gluck cause is Sir John Eliot Gardiner. His Lyon recording of Iphigénie en Aulide, its cast headed by Lynne Dawson, Anne Sofie von Otter, and José van Dam has many virtues, though Gardiner, it must be admitted, sometimes drives too hard. Gluck’s German language-version, Iphigenie in Aulis is very well-served by Karl Böhm’s Salzburg recording. What a cast! Christa Ludwig, Inge Borkh, Walter Berry, Otto Edelmann… Wagner’s 1847 revision needs to be heard by Gluckians and Wagnerians alike. Kurt Eichhorn’s Munich recording (Fischer-Dieskau, Moffo, et al.) should be snapped up without hesitation.
Alceste is, of course, the work to which Gluck’s (actually his librettist, Calzabigi’s) celebrated Preface, one of the most important documents in the history of opera, was penned. The French and Italian versions are so different as pretty much to constitute separate works. In French, Janet Baker’s Covent Garden farewell, under the baton of Charles Mackerras, demands to be heard. So too, however, does Jessye Norman’s towering account of the title role, with excellent – in truth, far richer-toned – Munich forces under Serge Baudo. Siegmund Nimsgern, Nicolai Gedda, and Kurt Rydl are amongst the other cast members. For the rare Italian version, a great soprano of an earlier generation calls to us: no less than Kirsten Flagstad, conducted by Geraint Jones.
Lothar Zagrosek conducted a Gluck cycle in Berlin not so long ago. In a better world, we should all have heard it, or at least heard of it. His recording of Paride ed Elena, with Ileana Cotrubas and Franco Bonisolli remains an estimable account.
The above recommendations have all been of Gluck’s ‘reform operas’, certainly his most important achievement. However, there are many riches to be discovered elsewhere, if only someone would perform them. As a single example of orchestral, though highly dramatic, music, the ballet, Don Juan (a far from negligible influence upon Mozart) may be heard in a typically musical account from Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Lamberto Gardelli’s charming recording of the one-act Le Cinesi will offer an enchanting introduction to the ‘pre-reform’ Gluck.