Skip to main content

 Recording of the Week  Cecilia Bartoli sings music from 18th-century Russia

A disc celebrating music of the Russian Baroque had me initially scratching my head, as I couldn’t (and actually still can’t) name a single Russian Baroque composer. However, between 1730 and 1796 three successive empresses (or tsaritsas) – Anna Ioannovna (1730-40), Elizaveta Petrovna (1741-62), and Catherine II (better known as Catherine the Great, 1762-96) – employed and commissioned a succession of Italian and German composers to come to the Russian court in St Petersburg to compose, perform and generally enrich the cultural life.

Cecilia Bartoli (© Xavier Paris/Decca)
Cecilia Bartoli (© Xavier Paris/Decca)

In addition, the first of these empresses (Anna Ioannovna) essentially imported an entire Italian opera company and from this we can trace the earliest origins of opera in Russia. Much of the surviving music from this period has been languishing in the Mariinsky Theatre Library Archive since the Eighteenth century, but thanks to the relentless drive of Cecilia Bartoli and the co-operation of Maestro Valery Gergiev, we can now finally hear some of these rarities and I’m pleased to say that many of them are absolute delights.

Released today, Cecilia Bartoli’s latest project (named simply ‘St Petersburg’) contains all world premiere recordings of arias from the operas of six different Italian and German composers. The only one I had actually heard of was Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) who spent four years at the Russian court before moving to Vienna, but probably the two most important composers on here are Francesco Araia (1709-c.1770) and Hermann Raupach (1728-1778).

As well as being the first composer to write an opera to a Russian libretto (Tsefal i Prokris, premiered in 1755), Naples-born Francesco Araia was also the first composer to have an opera performed at all in Russia (La forza dell’amore e dell’odio, performed at the Winter Palace in 1736), and it is a beautifully plaintive aria about death from this opera with which Bartoli begins this new disc.

This is immediately followed by the first of the arias from Hermann Raupach – in my view the most exciting composer on here. Raupach provides Bartoli, singing in Russian for the first time, with the opportunity to display her breathtaking coloratura, full of runs, trills and incredible range. But in contrast he also provides her with unaccompanied moments too where she floats up to the quietest of pianissimos. It is really quite magical, and I’d love to hear more of Raupach’s surviving output as his compositional voice is quite special.

Generally speaking, it feels like there is more slower music on here than on her recent discs. I’m not sure if this is deliberate or just the way it worked out, but she clearly relishes the emotional depths and rich harmonies which many of these provide, and the two arias where she duets with solo flute and solo oboe drawn from the outstanding I Barocchisti are tender and particularly delightful.

Indeed, expertly directed from the harpsichord by Diego Fasolis, I Barocchisti play throughout with exquisitely shaped phrasing, and remarkable sensitiveness to both the solo voice and solos within the ensemble. They don’t lack any firepower in the more energetic or majestic moments either!

She performed a substantial amount of music from this disc at a launch event in the stunning Hall of Mirrors at the Chateau of Versailles last Monday. I was lucky enough to be there and the experience will long live with me, as I’m sure it will with everyone else in the room. A European tour of this programme starts in Berlin later this month – do catch it if you can.

Sound samples, a short video preview, and download options (including a 24-bit Studio Quality version) are available via the links below. The CD version is also worth special mention, as its 124-page booklet full of essays, pictures and translations, combined with a luxuriously produced hardback book cover, make it a pretty desirable product to own!

Cecilia Bartoli: St Petersburg

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC