Gluck’s Don Juan was clearly an inspiration to Mozart when composing his operatic version of the tale, Don Giovanni. The anti-hero’s descent into hell even shares the same dark D minor key as Gluck’s finale, which was famously recycled as “The Dance of the Furies” in the Paris version of his opera Orphée et Eurydice. According to Da Ponte’s libretto for their dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don notches up 1003 conquests in Spain alone. Sadly, Gluck’s ballet failed to seduce in a tame performance by the Academy of Ancient Music as part of its ‘Grand Tour’ series.

Gergely Madaras © Balazs Borocz
Gergely Madaras
© Balazs Borocz

Part of the blame lay with Gluck himself. His ballet lasts three quarters of an hour and contains some 30 numbers, so they’re all relatively short. The AAM's programme also failed to provide a synopsis, meaning that some educated guesswork was required to piece together the plot: delicate pizzicati could have indicated a serenade; icy sul ponticello strings perhaps depicted the graveyard scene where the statue of the Commendatore (the Stone Guest) comes to life. Otherwise, the dances were often of a vague courtly or pastoral nature, until the familiar Chaconne finale.

The AAM’s performance was neat and tidy. Even the castanets in the fandango (another theme later adopted by Mozart, this time in Le nozze di Figaro) were politely understated. Insecure period instrument intonation affected a few numbers, particularly the oboe in the charming pizzicato-accompanied pastorale and the doleful trombone as the Stone Guest appears. String playing was pleasantly sprightly, but limited numbers (4 first violins, 4 seconds, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass) meant that in several movements the harpsichord continuo dominated to such an extent that it threatened to turn into a concerto. Antiphonal violins worked very nicely in the Allegro maestoso fourth dance and there was a good deal of balletic lilt in evidence, urged on by Gergely Madaras’ graceful gestures. The finale, however, lacked the demonic drive the scurrying score demands; as rides into hell go, this was a little tepid.

It’s difficult to comprehend Mozart’s reported dislike of the flute when one considers the works he composed for the instrument. In 1778, he penned the Concerto in C major for flute and harp K299 in Paris for the Comte de Guines and his daughter, to whom Mozart gave lessons in composition. It is justly celebrated, particularly the Elysian tranquility of the Andantino, echoing Gluck’s balmy “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orphée, written four years earlier, which features flute prominently.

Following on from the concert opener of Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, austere in mood and astringent in tone, the concerto promised a burst of sunlight; Rachel Brown, playing a six-keyed flute, provided plenty. The AAM principal flautist demonstrated a soft, rounded tone and wonderfully clear articulation, especially in the outer movements. Cadenzas were inventive and her subtle ornamentation in the recapitulation of the main theme in the Andantino was delightful. Unfortunately, her partner did not quite match her artistry. Masumi Nagasawa played a 1771 single-action pedal harp, much smaller than the standard double-action version. Usually a strong advocate for period instruments, I often found myself wishing for its modern counterpart here; the sound was anaemic, more akin to a mandolin. In the first two movements, Nagasawa persistently dragged the tempo back, which damaged the sense of harmony between her and Brown. Madaras and the AAM provided dutiful support, but it wasn’t until the Rondeau that soloists and conductor seemed to be in sympathy tempo-wise, resulting in a finale which was crisp and vivacious.