Schweitzer, A Alceste

A hit from the ‘court of the Muses’ revived to excellent effect here

Author: 
Richard Lawrence

Schweitzer, A Alceste

  • Alceste

Anna Amalia, niece of Frederick the Great, Duchess of Saxe-Weimar, presided over one of the most civilised courts in Europe. The most famous man at this “court of the Muses” was Goethe, who arrived in Weimar shortly after the duchess’s 19 years as regent had come to an end. But a few years earlier, Anna Amalia had appointed an equally distinguished figure to be the tutor of her sons: Christoph Martin Wieland, a poet and dramatist mainly remembered now in connection with Die Zauberflöte and Weber’s Oberon. The duchess had also engaged Abel Seyler’s theatre company on a permanent contract. Its musical director was the composer Anton Schweitzer: he and Wieland collaborated on several works including Alceste which, premiered in 1773, was soon to be seen all over Germany. This recording is taken from a staged production in Weimar, mounted last year to mark the bicentenary of Anna Amalia’s death.

Gluck’s first setting of the story in Italian was known to Schweitzer. Wieland, a prolific writer of essays in support of a German national opera, thought Gluck a good model. Schweitzer was no Gluck but he is well worth hearing. Mozart was rude about him – “as long as he lives he will never learn how to write for the voice!” – but then he saw Schweitzer as a rival. In Alceste, some of the numbers are over-long: Alceste’s first aria takes eight minutes, while the aria for her sister Parthenia in Act 4 lasts for 12, with no fewer than four cadenzas. Elsewhere, on the other hand, Schweitzer paces the drama with skill, moving flexibly between secco and accompagnato recitative, arioso and aria.

Cyndia Sieden sings Parthenia’s high coloratura passages brilliantly, and Simone Schneider variously expresses Alcestis’s agitation, nobility and joy with a moving simplicity. Christoph Genz is a sight too phlegmatic when confronted with Alcestis’s sacrifice but he wakes up for Admetus’s big scena. Josef Wagner makes much of the smaller part of Hercules. With superb playing by Concerto Köln under Michael Hofstetter, this set can be warmly recommended.

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