26 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck – OPERA ARIAS (Daniel Behle, tenor; DECCA 478 6758)

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 478 6758)

CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Opera Arias for Tenor – Arias from Antigono, Le cinesi, La contesa de’ numi, Ezio, Ipermestra, Iphigénie en Aulide, Orphée et Eurydice, La Recontre imprévue, and La Semiramide riconosciutaDaniel Behle, tenor; Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall, Megaron, The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 4 – 9 July 2013; DECCA 478 6758; 1CD, 63:50*; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *Note: The digital download version of this release includes an additional aria, ‘Plus j’observe ces lieux’ from Armide.]

​The flow of new recordings released in celebration of the Verdi and Wagner Bicentennials ultimately proved to be more of a trickle than the anticipated deluge, and by any credible standards the discs that floated into the market left much to be desired and little to be remembered. With many of the world’s finest singers and musicians now being those with proven historically-informed performance practice credentials, expectations for a glut of musically-impeccable new recordings honoring the 300th anniversaries of the births of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Niccolò Jommelli soared with the dawning of 2014. The musicologist with an adventurous nature and a reliable security detail might venture that this trio of Eighteenth-Century masters were, in terms of contributions to the progress of the musical genres with which they tussled, even more significant than their Nineteenth-Century successors. Without Jommelli, there might have been no Verdi; without Gluck, no Wagner: without C.P.E. Bach, much of the magnificent landscape of later music would be barren. Even now, in the year of his tercentennial, the legacy of Gluck beyond Orfeo ed Euridice—the body of work that influenced and inspired operatic endeavors from Fidelio and Euryanthe to Les Troyens, Rusalka, and The Rape of Lucretia—remains in the shadows. While every dismembered score by Händel and Vivaldi is patched up and restored to some semblance of life regardless of its merits, Gluck’s operas slumber in libraries and archives, grateful merely to see their titles quoted in tomes on Eighteenth-Century music. Perhaps there is a lingering perception that his early bravura scores are works of which the composer of Orfeo ed Euridice, Iphigénie en Tauride, and Armide ought to be ashamed, works of the sort that his own reforms sought to render obsolete, but of what value is appreciating progress without evaluating the point from which the journey began? An unprejudiced evaluation of Gluck’s operas reveals an exceptionally varied portfolio of scores that span virtually the entire course of opera in the composer’s lifetime, from the late Baroque of Händel and Hasse to the Viennese Classicism of Haydn, Mozart, and Salieri and the Turn-of-the-Century innovations of Beethoven, Cherubini, Grétry, and Méhul. Gluck was not merely an observer of operatic history: he was, for more than a half-century, its guiding light, and an earnest comprehension of Gluck’s importance as a musical trailblazer is immeasurably enhanced by acquaintance with the products of his creativity at all junctures in his career. This disc of discerningly-selected arias for tenor is one of the most valuable tools for building that acquaintance to have emerged since the invention of sound recording. Moreover, benefitting from the top-quality engineering and presentation for which DECCA recordings have been renowned for decades, it is a disc that preserves some truly wonderful singing.

A recital of opera arias that enjoys the support of Armonia Atenea and George Petrou has considerable augurs of success before the singer steps into the recording studio. Tested in repertory ranging from Händel to Beethoven, the instrumentalists of Armonia Atenea have demonstrated expertise in the shifting idioms of Eighteenth-Century music, and their playing of Gluck repertory on this disc reveals a further facet in their virtuosic diadem. These arias demand both determination and delicacy, and the Armonia Atenea players deliver powerfully. In the fiery music from Gluck’s earlier operas, the musicians stretch their muscles with playing of uncompromising precision and rhythmic vitality. In a number like the over-familiar ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ from Orphée et Eurydice, the inclusion of which is justified by the radiant performance that it receives, the musical magicians of Armonia Atenea lament with Orphée in an arresting union of sound with sentiment. Only an occasionally over-active harpsichord continuo disturbs the keenly-judged collaboration among orchestra, conductor, and singer. Maestro Petrou’s pacing of each aria exudes confidence, familiarity, and innate understanding of both Gluck’s requirements and the soloist’s needs in terms of breath control and dramatic deportment. It is largely to Maestro Petrou’s credit that nothing sounds derivative: whether in the vein of Hasse or in the full throes of reform, each aria glistens with the individual voice of Gluck. The authentic spirit of the composer also inhabits the work of musicologist Giovanni Andrea Sechi, whose specially-prepared editions and historically-appropriate ornaments introduce these arias to Twenty-First-Century listeners in settings that restore the full splendor of Gluck’s creativity.

In his recent recordings of Humperdinck’s Königskinder [Oehms Classics—reviewed here] and Brahms’s Die schöne Magelone [Capriccio] and his sonorous performances as Matteo in Osterfestspiele Salzburg’s production of Richard Strauss’s Arabella opposite Renée Fleming, it has been apparent that young tenor Daniel Behle is an artist destined to be one of the most important singers of his generation. In his singing of the arias on this disc, he grasps that destiny with both hands and, in one of the most beautiful recordings of tenor singing released in recent memory, realizes the promise of his earlier recordings. The voice is the genuine article, a full-bodied lyric tenor with a solid core: the power and patina are those of steel and gold, not chrome-plated pyrite. The liquid ease of Mr. Behle’s tonal production and his well-schooled bravura technique make him a first-rate exponent of Eighteenth-Century music for the tenor voice, ranging from the bracing coloratura of Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano to the effusive lyricism of Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The reserves of strength in Mr. Behle’s singing make guardedly tantalizing suggestions of Jugendlicher Heldentenor potential, and his youthful mastery of Lieder repertory gives notice of meticulously-honed interpretive instincts. The best qualities of Mr. Behle’s artistry find outlets in Gluck’s music, and each of the arias receives from him a performance that allies consummate musicality with sensitive emotional accents drawn from the text.

Opening the disc with a vigorous account of the title character’s aria ‘Quercia annosa sull’erte pendici’ from Antigono, an aria that would not seem out of place in Mozart’s Mitridate, rè di Ponto, Mr. Behle immediately discloses his stylistic affinity with Gluck’s music. The coloratura of Mirteo’s aria ‘Io veggo in lontananza’ from Act Two of La Semiramide riconosciuta is dispatched impressively, and the ringing top notes and credibly-managed trills make the cadenzas delightful displays of exhilarating but historically-appropriate singing. Mr. Behle explores unexpected chromatic avenues in the aria’s closing cadenza to great effect, his sure intonation enabling musically satisfying resolutions of diminished harmonies. In the same character’s aria from Act One, ‘Bel piacer saria d’un core,’ Mr. Behle’s handling of coloratura is even more expressive, and his negotiations of the grueling vocal intervals are thrilling. Danao’s powerful aria ‘Non hai cor per un’impresa’ from Act Two of Ipermestra—a score more deserving of revival than almost any of the Baroque obscurities performed and recorded in the past decade—receives from Mr. Behle a pulse-quickening performance, the biting irony of his delivery of the lines ‘hai costanza, ingrata figlia, per vedermi palpitar’ (‘you stand unmoved, ungrateful daughter, and observe my trembling’) shaping a noble but piercing portrayal of the aria’s dramatic ardor.

Massimo’s aria from Act One of the 1750 Prague version of Ezio, ‘Se povero il ruscello,’ is sung as beautifully by Mr. Behle as it is accompanied by Armonia Atenea. The phrasing of the oboe obbligato is perfectly matched to Mr. Behle’s singing, which blooms marvelously as the vocal line ascends. Even considering that the aria was repurposed as the dulcet ‘Che puro ciel’ in Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna in 1762, Gluck’s excision of the aria in his 1763 Viennese revision of Ezio is lamentable. Mr. Behle’s sustained tones and refined diction in ‘Se povero il ruscello’ provide great pleasure. Paced at an apt tempo, Mr. Behle presents ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ from the 1774 Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice as an agitated expression of grief rather than a lugubrious dirge, the pair of top B♭s voiced with freedom and grace. A resonantly-sustained top B crowns Mr. Behle’s singing of Achille’s superb entrance aria from Iphigénie en Aulide, ‘Cruelle, non, jamais votre insensible cœur,’ which inspires the tenor to one of his most impassioned performances on the disc. The high, haute-contre tessitura of ‘Je chérirai, jusqu’au trépas,’ Ali’s aria from Act One of the underappreciated La Rencontre imprévue, makes no demands of Mr. Behle that are not met gloriously. Breathing the same air as ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,’ the aria’s expansive melodies are phrased by the singer with serene composure complemented by the cor anglais and violin obbligati and the theorbo continuo. Mr. Behle possesses an especially beautiful top A: the vocal line of ‘Je chérirai, jusqu’au trépas’ might have been composed for him, and his ascent to top C is elegant and secure.

Giove’s recitative ‘Qual ira intempestiva’ and aria ‘Oggi per me non sudi’ from La contesa de’ numi, composed for a festive occasion in Copenhagen in 1749, are suitably pompous, and Mr. Behle approaches the music with vocal grandeur appropriate for the ruler of Olympus. He rips through the words of the opening recitative with the force of Jove’s thunderbolt, and his singing of the aria is opulently energetic. Mr. Behle’s singing of Silango’s aria ‘Son lungi e non mi brami’ from Le cinesi is stirring, the sting of his enunciation of ‘ti sento dir che m’ami, né trovo amore in te’ (‘I hear you say that you love me, but I find no love in you’) lending his performance tremendous emotional impact. It is regrettable that purchasers of the compact disc version of this recital are deprived of Mr. Behle’s gorgeous performance of Renaud’s air ‘Plus j’observe ces lieux’ from Act Two of Armide. This aria is illustrative of Gluck at the pinnacle of his gifts as a composer and dramatist, and his singing of it is demonstrative of the best of Mr. Behle’s achievements as a singer and lyric artist.

When there is near-universal acknowledgement both of Gluck’s unique genius and of the lasting importance of his contributions to the transition of opera from the Baroque models of the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries to the luxuriant Romanticism of the Nineteenth Century and beyond, the neglect suffered by the bulk of his operatic scores is inexplicable. The tercentennial of Gluck’s birth is an anniversary worthy of commemoration, but the lofty hopes for a bevy of excellent new and reissued recordings of the composer’s music have mostly been unfulfilled. This disc honors Gluck in remarkable ways, however, and it is a recording worthy of inclusion among the ranks of the legendary recital discs of DECCA’s storied past. Most delectably, though, it is a celebration of Daniel Behle, one of the Twenty-First-Century’s finest young tenors. Gluck will receive no finer tribute on the occasion of his 300th birthday than Daniel Behle’s singing on this disc.