Thursday, 24 January 2013

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, January 2013)

I Barocchisti / Diego Fasolis
Decca 478 4732 / *****

This new release confirms Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli’s legacy as one of opera’s greatest voices and minds. The intelligence and adventurousness of her concept albums now takes her to the operas of little-known Baroque composer, Roman Catholic bishop and polymath Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), who for many years served as a diplomat in the royal courts of Germany. The copiously illustrated accompanying book has Bartoli costumed as a priest and stereotypical movie spy, the shadowy envoys get into, including attempting to reconvert the Protestant Germans back to Catholicism.

What about the music? Bartoli sings 24 arias and duets (with countertenor Philippe Jarrousky) from twelve operas, selected for their virtuosity, variety and dynamic range. Just savour the vertiginous runs and gravity-defying feats from Tassilone, Il Trionfo del Fato, La Superbia d’Alessandro and La Liberta Contenta, to hear how he might have influenced Handel’s own operas. On a more subtle note, there is great beauty in Amami, e Vederei (Love Me, and You Will See), accompanied by just a lute, and the duet Serena, O Mio bel sole (Tamper, My Beautiful Sun), both from Niobe. Was Steffani the greatest Italian composer between Monteverdi and Vivaldi? With Bartoli’s amazingly vivid and irrepressible proselytising, he might very well have been.

RESPIGHI Violin Sonatas
Hyperion 67930 / ****1/2

The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is justly celebrated for his Roman Trilogy and sumptuously orchestrated works. In his less exposed chamber music, he sounds like a totally different creator. In this collection of violin and piano works, only the Violin Sonata in B minor of 1917 bears some familiarity, having been recorded by Jascha Heifetz and Kyung-Wha Chung. A dark, smoky aroma and Straussian opulence lend the music much beauty and poignancy. The nocturne-like slow movement radiates much warmth as it works to a climactic high, while the finale is a well-written passacaglia, a contemporary tribute to the Baroque form and finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

Rather more influenced by Brahms is the early Violin Sonata in D minor (1897), an attractive student piece of late Romanticism that is not particularly distinctive. More memorable are the Five Pieces (1906), which are well characterised and include a Romance, Berceuse and Humoresque. Almost out of character are the salon charms of Valse Caressante and Serenata, which are totally disarming. The German violinist Tanja Becker-Bender and Hungarian pianist Peter Nagy are most sympathetic advocates, lavishing the music with much needed colour and vitality. Recommended listening. 

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