The 1996 Minkowski recording of this, Gluck's fourth opera for Paris, has languished on my shelves for years without my feeling much impulse to revisit it. The reappearance of Richard Hickox' 1982 version gave me good cause to find out why; straight away I discovered what was missing from Minkowski's account: a sense of urgency, tension, a proper acknowledgement of the searing passions seething in Armide's breast and the underlying "edginess" that must lurk beneath the declamatory grandeur of Gluck's stately music.
Gluck's desire was to escape Baroque formalism and deliver a more direct, unadorned emotionalism. Minkowski seems to me to be stuck in a more sedate past in his handling of the score. His default position is the cliché adopted by all conductors bereft of ideas: take the slow passages VERY SLOOOW then go hell for leather in the fast sections. His direction is otherwise rhythmically inert as we veer between stasis and scramble. Urgency is not conveyed by being frenetic. It perhaps doesn't help that the Baroque pitch of A=403 is used; being two thirds of a tone down on standard modern concert pitch definitely takes the edge off things. You have only to compare some of the more dramatic moments with Hickox' taut, flexible direction to hear the difference; one such is the final scene, which brings me to the deficiencies in Minkowski's singers as compared with Hickox' stellar cast - stellar, with one notable exception, that is.
The lack of excitement in his conducting is compounded by Minkowski's voices: Mireille Delunsch has a light, flickering, attractive mezzo but her relatively small and unvaried tone is as nothing compared with Felicity Palmer's big, handsome voice. Yes, she has her squally moments - she was in the process of making the transition from the soprano to the mezzo tessitura and is at times awkward, but the sheer intensity and scale of her assumption of the role at times are reminiscent of Callas, as is her ability to shade dynamics and colour her tone. Comparison of that last scene provides a conclusive illustration of the difference between them; Palmer's conflict and despair are gripping, Delunsch sounds mildly inconvenienced. Minkowski generally has lighter, less characterful voices at his disposal with the notable exception of the great Ewa Podles' "La haine" - not that Hickox' Linda Finnie is in any sense inadequate in that role but Podles engineers a typical tour de force compared with Finnie's more conventional singing. Tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson clearly has a major voice compared with Charles Workman and does a reasonable facsimile of a French haut-contre tenor; generally the smaller parts are much better filled for Hickox, including lovely contributions by Keith Lewis, Sally Burgess and Marie Slorach in the two successive trios in Act 4. Minkowski's singers are nowhere near so beautiful. The big exception is Hickox' Hidraot, which lies too high for Raimund Herincx at this stage of his career and his contribution is, I'm afraid, at times comically strained and wobbly. Fortunately, it's a small part; Minkowski's Laurent Naouri is much smoother of voice but also typically bland compared with Herincx' game blustering.
EMI provide a synopsis and one of those annoying libretti on a fourth CD ROM; Archiv includes a conventional booklet with a libretto but Minkowski's edition permits cuts in the dance music. I know which one I shall be keeping and listening to when I want to enter Gluck's strange fantasy world of magic spectacle and psychological verisimilitude.