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Baroque brilliance, beauty and passion
on 12 September 2013
In this splendid programme Cecilia Bartoli once again teams up with Diego Fasolis and his excellent period-instrument band I Barocchisti, this time to bring us a selection of Agostino Steffani's sacred works. On this occasion, however, although she is clearly one of the prime movers behind the project, the diva makes no attempt to steal the show but takes her place as one of a very fine international team of soloists, the others by no means being put in the shade by the great mezzo. Also, as will be seen, the Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera make an outstanding contribution to the proceedings.
This "Stabat Mater" was Steffani's last work, and he considered it his masterpiece. It's a substantial and beautiful setting of a deeply affecting text, in twelve movements for soloists, chorus and instruments. The lovely, richly-textured instrumental opening sets the tone of this work of gravitas and passion - soon enhanced by the entry of Bartoli's unmistakable voice, quite operatic in style and delivery with a touch more vibrato than the other voices. All the soloists are first-class, with bass Salvo Vitale especially fine in places where he really is expected to plumb the depths (as in 'Vidit suum dulcem Natum', track 5). The excellent voices of the chorus sing their passages with matching passion and commitment, all the drama of the text expressed to the full. They have especially lovely moments in the two sections beginning "Fac me" (7, 10). Steffani's choral writing is quite beautiful (again, for example, in the closing movement, track 12) and it's all splendidly performed - all credit to the choir, about 22 in number for most of the works here, to the fine players of the baroque ensemble, and to Fasolis' inspired direction.
The remainder of the programme brings us six more sacred works in an impressive variety of format, mood and texture. "Beatus vir" is for 8-part chorus, doubled here by instruments with cornet and trombones creating a fine, rich sound. The antiphonal choral writing is beautifully captured in the recording of this energetic and absorbing piece. "Non plus me ligate" brings Cecilia back for a dazzling solo turn with a lovely chamber instrumental accompaniment; it's sung with spirit, passion and virtuosity, with the slightly breathy, melodramatic delivery of the singer and with total conviction - a performance that's sure to delight Bartoli fans. Next, "Triduanas a Domino" is a piece in 'stilo antico' scored for two 4-part choirs; it's short but lovely, and again shows Steffani's absolute mastery of choral writing.
The three remaining items on the disc are substantial, cantata-like pieces in several sections, and each one of the three is a splendid, inventive and highly attractive work, with not a single dull or routine moment to be heard. The first of these, "Laudate pueri", is an absolute knockout in my view. It includes lovely duetting for two sopranos, most beautifully delivered here by Nuria Rial and Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, and fine passages for the male soloists as well - not forgetting some terrific chorus work, all with continuo accompaniment. Next, "Sperate in Deo" is for five solo voices, chorus and b.c., again including gorgeous duet passages for those two sopranos, as well as fine contributions from the other soloists including Vitale's distinctive bass. There's plenty of drama in the music to reflect the militant text, and altogether this is another splendid work which receives a superb perfomance from Fasolis' forces.
The final work, "Qui diligit Mariam", brings us more gentle and reflective beauties, with some lovely madrigalesque choral passages such as the graceful "Haec mater pulchrae" section, still more delectable duetting and other delights from the soloists including Bartoli, before a concluding chorus rising once again to passion and drama.
The recorded sound throughout is first-class, offering clear, full-bodied sound and allowing the instrumental textures all of their due. Booklet notes by Steffani expert Colin Timms, who also prepared performing editions for most of the works, are excellent; and all texts and translations are given. Beware, though, of the over-zealous commercialising activities of the publicity underlings, who once again have been far too liberal with their asterisks purporting to indicate 'world premiere recordings'. In fact not one, but four of these seven works have been recorded on CD before; "Stabat Mater" by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, and this same with several others in a very fine collection, "Steffani - Musica Sacra", by the Neue Hofkapelle München under Christoph Hammer on Austrian Radio's ORF label. However, this latter is hard to find, although at the time of writing it's available from the label's own site or from the German mail order firm whose initials stand for jazz-pop-classic.
In any case, the present disc not only outclasses The Sixteen's decent Stabat Mater recording, but offers an altogether fascinating and revelatory programme of music from a great baroque master who now, at long last, is regaining some of the appreciation he deserves - and which he enjoyed in his own time before his memory was unaccountably mislaid by subsequent generations. The boldness and enterprise of the Bartoli-Fasolis-I Barocchisti team in bringing this music to baroque enthusiasts are paying off handsomely, and I hope they'll be bringing us still more in due course. For both musical quality and performing brilliance, then, this "Stabat Mater" and its companion works are every bit the equal of the other two discs in this Steffani series so far - namely, "Mission" and "Danze e Ouvertures". Baroque enthusiasts need not hesitate!