on 22 January 2002
This is a wonderful CD but, for various reasons, it is terribly difficult to write about. Yes, it is beautifully produced, with the booklet richly illustrated and filled with fantastic liner notes (really WORTH reading along with the arias!) by Bartoli's boyfriend and collaborator Claudio Osele. And yes, the music is gorgeously sung and equally gorgeously played (an improvement since the Vivaldi disc where the orchestral accompaniment was too rough). But how to describe the music itself, especially when so much of it has never been performed and it is impossible to refer the potential buyer to existing recordings, however obscure. Of course, the Vivaldi disc posed the same problem, but there the composer's name -familiar to so many - combined with Bartoli's reputation guaranteed its success. Gluck never enjoyed this kind of popularity and even among real opera aficionados it is hard to find those who are familiar with his works except the ubiquitous "Orfeo". And yet, Gluck's place in the history of opera is much more important than Vivaldi's - he was the great reformer, the man who transformed Baroque opera into Classical. But perhaps this very quality of being a transitional figure, neither wholly Baroque nor wholly Classical (plus his cosmopolitanism - he was a Bohemian who wrote operas in Italian, French and German for most of the major European cities) has made him difficult to fit into any category. People tend to think of Classical opera as sounding like Mozart - Gluck's reform operas don't and so people mistake his deliberate simplicity for incompetence. As for his early work before his reforms of the 1760s, this has been almost entirely forgotten - after all, the reasoning goes, if it needed reforming then there was clearly something badly wrong with it. This new CD proves how mistaken that judgment is.
All the arias here are set to the words by Pietro Metastasio, the most successful librettist of the eighteenth century and perhaps of all time. His 27 different libretti were apparently set 800 times by 300 different composers, so eighteenth century audiences coming to an operatic premiere would often know the words by heart before they had heard a note of the new musical version. Many of those composers enjoyed only a brief fame, but some of Gluck's arias recorded here can be contrasted with rival settings by the greatest: Handel, Haydn and Mozart. Track 3 brings a marvellous recitativo followed by a da capo aria from Gluck's 1750 opera "Ezio". Handel set the same Metastasio text (slightly adapted) to music some 20 years earlier. The contrast between Handel's lilting, dancelike melody and Gluck's passionate rage is striking...The very title "Clemenza di Tito" immediately brings associations with the Mozart opera of the same name. Unfortunately, Mozart used a text adapted by Mazzola but it is still possible to compare the two works. A piece which Mozart set as a trio appears here as an 11 minute long aria, "Se mai sentirti spirar". It is (literally) breathtaking, as life and hope slowly die away and Bartoli's performance is electrifying, time seems to stand still as she sings. The daring harmonies in this piece provoked immense controversy in its day. When his pupils told the famous Italian music teacher, Durante, that such unconventional music was obviously the work of a 'German donkey', he replied that no rules existed to justify such a combination of sounds but only a genius could have thought of it. This aria also shows one reason why Metastasio had such a strong appeal to musicians. Metastasio often wrote his texts around a single metaphor or simile (this one is based on the idea of breath), allowing composers the opportunity for vivid musical illustration. Anyone who has heard the Vivaldi Album might remember the two Metastasio arias there, with their metaphors of a storm at sea and of freezing winter. Here we also get arias based on the idea of Cupid's lyre, inspiring Gluck to a wonderfully rococo pizzicato accompaniment, and of a gentle stream gradually building to a great river ("Quel chiaro rio"). But human passions are also vividly and directly depicted - one of our very favorite tracks, "Berenice, che fai?" (#8), is a magnificent scene set to a superb text, that also inspired Haydn (Scena di Berenice, Hob.XXIVa:10) and apparently Handel. Haydn's "Scena di Berenice", composed in 1795, is more classically controlled and not as intensely dramatic as Gluck's, but it is no less powerful. Those who are lucky to have Arleen Auger's delightful recital of Haydn's arias and cantatas (Decca/L'Oiseau Lyre 1990, nla) can hear it in her touching interpretation.
What you won't hear on this CD is Gluck's most famous aria "Che faro senza Euridice". We heard so much about Cecilia's struggle with Decca over her refusal to record the aria that it almost became a legend. Of course everybody would love to hear it but in a way, its absence is a symbol of the artist's personal victory (besides the aria's text is not by Metastasio) - she got it her way and she is to be congratulated for her faith in this little known but quite wonderful music. Those who fall in love with Gluck through this superb recital and would like to explore more, should start with Minkowski's recording of "Iphigenie en Tauride", one of the best recordings of any Classical opera! There, if you still hunt for comparisons, you can find Gluck's own reworking of the two last arias on this disc. Enjoy!