Gluck: Echo & Narcisse

Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet
102:19 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS095

The excellent Versailles Spectacle concert and recording series brings us this intriguing recording of Gluck’s last opera, Echo and Narcissus, a light pastoral which turns out to be of much more significance than first appearances would suggest. As a result of a mixture of bad luck, bad timing and bad casting the work was a comprehensive failure at its first performances, much to the chagrin of its composer, who clearly felt it deserved a better reception. On the basis of this delightfully understated performance, I can see why Gluck was so frustrated by its lack of popular success. Not always known for understatement, on this occasion Niquet has astutely cast the piece with appropriately light voices and allowed the music to speak for itself. One particular virtue of the work is Gluck’s imaginative orchestral writing, making particularly imaginative use of horns and clarinets. He also largely succeeds in his aim to blend the French and Italian operatic styles – the ‘extras’ are given music with a light Italianate charm while the central characters’ more profound music recalls the music of Rameau – while you would have thought the generally undemanding musical idiom and the episodic nature of the piece would have appealed to the short musical attention span of the French court in 1779. None of these virtues nor even the patronage of Marie Antoinette herself would save the work from failure and obscurity until it was ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century. The precise and tasteful playing and singing of Le Concert Spiritual bring this little gem to vivid life, and while the positioning, with the chorus and soloists onstage and the orchestra down on the flat tends to flatten out the orchestral colours a little, the overall sound and balance are pleasing, and the acoustic of the Opéra Royal de Versailles provides just the right amount of resonance, reflecting the sound Gluck would have been writing for. It was probably much too late for the self-obsessed and hopelessly superficial court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to learn any valuable lessons from Gluck’s pastoral – in any case, Gluck never returned to opera in the last decade of his life, while just a couple of years after his death the entire edifice of the French Court was swept away in revolution. In many ways, the innocent simplicity of Gluck’s Echo & Narcisse evokes a whole era of French music, part of a culture blissfully unaware of its shortcomings and the gruesome fate that awaited it.

D. James Ross

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