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 Recording of the Week  Mission: Cecilia Bartoli

Agostino Steffani: I was vaguely familiar with the name, mainly because of Covent Garden’s lavish production of Niobe Regina di Tebe in 2010, but I’ll confess that I was a little underwhelmed when the identity of the composer for Cecilia Bartoli’s new album was finally revealed a few months back. I hadn’t recalled being especially gripped by the bit of Niobe that I’d caught on the radio, and was half-wondering if this was to be a worthy but dry exhumation of music which had been forgotten simply because it was, well, forgettable... How wrong I was: the shadowy Italian-born composer-turned-cleric-turned-diplomat turns out to be a truly distinctive voice indeed, and could have no finer advocate than the tirelessly enthusiastic and intrepid Ms Bartoli.

Cecilia Bartoli in character!
Cecilia Bartoli in character!

Writing around the turn of the seventeenth/eighteenth century, Steffani was very much the latter-day Renaissance man. Having begun his musical life as a chorister and operatic soloist (possibly a castrato, given the trajectory of his musical career, his appearance and documented health problems), he worked as a court composer in his twenties, but showed such flair and aptitude for the diplomatic responsibilities which were often then delegated to musicians that composition took a back seat as he travelled extensively through Europe, facilitating dynastic marriages, gathering sensitive information and later working to convert Lutheran areas of Northern Europe to Catholicism. As the biography in the booklet points out, he spent much of his career as a mediator of sorts and this, along with the influences absorbed on his travels, manifests itself in conspicuously cosmopolitan music: melodically it often feels very Italian, yet the influence of French courtly dances is also present, and there are other passages which sound almost Hispanic or Moorish.

Now, to the disc itself. If there were a Gramophone award for ‘Best Opening Track’ then this release would surely win it hands-down: the recital opens with a veritable inferno of pyrotechnics as the general Alarico summons his troops to ransack Rome, all fiendish volleys of coloratura and blazing trumpet passagework. We’ve been listening to the disc pretty much non-stop this week in the Presto office, but still exchange looks of amazement as Bartoli hurls out bullseye top Cs and cascades of semiquavers in this opening burst of energy. (Steffani seems to have been more of a miniaturist than many of his contemporaries, and like many of the arias on the 25-track disc this one clocks in at just two minutes.)

There are plenty more blazing martial show-stoppers along the way (it’s a close call, but I think my personal favourite has to be ‘Svenati, struggiti’ from La libertà contenta which has been playing on loop in my head all week and testifies to Steffani’s knack for penning a memorable motif!), but the collection also showcases Steffani’s lyrical gifts and Bartoli’s incomparable way with long-breathed lachrymose lines. As with her previous disc Sacrificium, I was reminded that her quiet sustained singing can be as breathtaking as her trademark bravura displays: it’s particularly evident in the beautiful laments from Servio Tullio (track 2) and Tassilone (track 22), which surely rival some of Handel’s great plaints. (One of the excellent booklet-essays explores how Handel encountered and ‘borrowed’ from Steffani, first via his colleague Keiser in Germany, and later more directly when he viewed manuscripts in Rome and London.) Steffani wrote more ensembles into his operas than most baroque composers, and Philippe Jaroussky joins Bartoli for four duets – ‘T’abbraccio, mia Diva’ (from Niobe) has a rapt stillness about it that recalls the greatest of all early opera duets, ‘Pur ti miro’ from Monteverdi’s Poppea.

Much more than a footnote in the history-books, then – Steffani proves a more-than-worthy subject for excavation, and I can only hope that we’ll get a full-length opera recording some time soon!

The CD version (including lavish hardback book with lots of good pictures and background information) is availble now (except in the UK where is released on November 12th), and from late November there will also be a vinyl LP version, and DVD and blu-ray versions, which can all be pre-ordered via the links below.

Mission - Deluxe hardback CD version - Available now, expect in the UK where it is released 12th November.

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo), Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor), I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis

Available Format: CD

Mission - DVD version

cilia Bartoli (mezzo), Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor), I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis bpre-order now/b - due for release on November 26th

Available Format: DVD Video