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Cecilia Bartoli: "Mission"

spacer Music of Agostino Steffani. With Jaroussky; Conte, lute; Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera, I Barocchisti, Fasolis. Decca 478 4732 

Perfect Match

Cecilia Bartoli’s disc of music by Agostino Steffani is a highly impressive act of excavation — and an ideal vehicle for her gifts.


All unjustly neglected composers of vocal music should pray that when the time comes for their discovery and resurrection, the person spearheading the effort will be Cecilia Bartoli. No other artist grabs her material by the throat and squeezes every drop of life out of it to quite the same exhilarating degree that Bartoli does. If she occasionally goes overboard in terms of breathless enthusiasm and muscled inflection , who cares? Just try to resist her.

The resurrectee in question here is Agostino Steffani (1654–1728), a nearly forgotten but influential early-Baroque opera composer. Steffani also had a significant career as a cleric and a diplomat, an angle of mystery that Decca is emphasizing in its aggressive marketing: the spiffy hardcover booklet has historical essays, maps of Steffani's travels and noir-ish photos of Bartoli, both as intrepid girl detective with camera and as bald, cross-wielding Steffani stand-in. The music, of course, has little to do with all this intrigue and stands solidly on its own; it calls to mind both Handel (who admired and imitated Steffani) and Vivaldi, with an inclination toward genuine dramatic excitement in the fast numbers and melodic lusciousness in the slower ones . There's a verve and spiciness to the music that distinguishes Steffani from run-of-the-mill Baroque and makes this project seem felicitous indeed. 

Bartoli, of course, galvanizes everything she goes near — Decca could probably sell a disc of her vocal warmups — and it's sometimes challenging to differentiate the inherent quality of the music from her full-throttle performances. But the melody of the stately, haunting triple-meter "Ogni core può sperar," from Servio Tullio , is undeniably lovely, and Bartoli's wisely understated approach allows the listener to enjoy it fully. Arias that seem less obviously distinguished, such as "Non prendo consiglio" , spring to vivid life, as Bartoli fairly bursts with musical exuberance. 

In general, this seems to be a perfect match of performer and repertoire. In slower pieces, such as the delicate, pleading "Dal mio petto" , Bartoli's floating, impressively controlled tone is laced with urgency, and she lavishes extra loving care on the lilting lullaby "Palpitanti sfere belle" . In a searching, six-minute scena from La Lotta d'Hercole con Acheloo, Bartoli does some especially vivid word-painting and benefits from the shimmer of some added wind chimes. Then there's a late-breaking (track 21 out of 25) tour de force called "Svenati, struggiti, combatti, suda" , whose second word (which translates as "exert yourself") Bartoli spits out as a blistering imperative, and whose lengthy, dizzying coloratura runs would strike fear into the heart of anyone any less intrepid.

Bartoli is joined in four selections by French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, and these numbers become showpieces of blend, balance and synchronous phrasing. In a duet from I Trionfi del Fato, Jaroussky somehow matches Bartoli's fireworks in some wonderfully playful double passagework . "Timore, ruine," which combines Bartoli, Jaroussky and the spirited Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera, is brief but gratifying. 

The invigorating period-instrument ensemble I Barocchisti, under the vibrant direction of Diego Fasolis, is a worthy artistic partner, heavy on thundering timpani and clarion trumpets, plus agile basso continuo and violins that are edgy and energized but not grating. Hardly a single track seems like a throwaway, and a surprising number are brilliantly illuminating — all in all, a highly impressive act of excavation. spacer 


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