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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Antonio Salieri: Arias and Overtures, Cecilia Bartoli, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra directed by Petra Müllejans. Barbican Hall, 24 September 2004 (ME)


"I looked on astounded as from his ordinary life he made his art. We were ordinary men, he and I. Yet he from the ordinary created legends – and I from legends created only the ordinary." Thus Salieri on Mozart, according to Peter Shaffer – and those words ‘ordinary’ and ‘legends’ just about sum up this concert: ordinary music performed by a legend. Cecilia Bartoli’s passionate advocacy of the music of Salieri is of course heart-warming from a singer who could so easily spend her life only on works of genius, and it is a testament to her power that she drew a packed house for this one – composer evening, although whoever scheduled the First Night of ENO’s ‘Trojans’ to coincide with it clearly needs to attend a course in joined-up thinking.


For many of us, it was the overtures which provided the real surprises of the evening: ‘Cublai, gran kan de Tartari’ was the perfect curtain-raiser to show off the virtues of this amazing orchestra and its charismatic leader who directed from the violin with real verve and style – as you heard the whizzing passages you could almost see the big fat pink clouds which no doubt would have scudded across the set, had the opera ever made it to the stage. Even more remarkable was the selection from ‘26 Variations on Les Folies d’Espagne’ described wittily in the programme notes as a sort of ‘Old Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ (Salieri wrote the piece many years after he had abandoned opera) – this is music which just touches greatness, and the FBO presented it brilliantly, especially fine performances coming from the horns and bassoons.


The opening aria ‘Gelosia, dispetto e sdegno’ was the perfect vehicle for Bartoli to display the flexibility of her coloratura in the tempestuous phrases, and the following ‘Eccomi più che mai... Amor, pietoso Amore’ allowed her to demonstrate the seductive quality of her tone and of course, to try to persuade us that this lovely but ultimately rather musically empty recitative and aria is worthy to stand alongside the pieces which keep coming in to your mind as you hear it, namely ‘Porgi amor’ and ‘Per Pietà’.


‘Vi sono sposa e amante’ was a superb collaboration between singer, flautist Karl Kaiser and oboist Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann, with each one seeming to challenge the other in virtuosity. The lovely aria from ‘Armida’ ‘Lungi da te ben mio’ provided the finest singing of the evening – for all her vocal fireworks, Bartoli is most moving in phrases such as ‘Vita di questo cor’ where the final word is inflected in such a way that it pierces the ear with its quality of emotion.


The fascinating ‘E voi da buon marito… Non vo’ gia che vi suonino’ shows the composer revelling in the possibilities of the voice and the orchestra: it’s difficult to imagine any other singer giving such character to the phrases describing the instruments which the heroine wants to hear at her wedding, and I’m sure Salieri would have loved it as much as the audience did. Our enthusiasm was rewarded with three wonderful encores, the last two arias by Joseph Haydn and Salieri which were brilliantly sung but paled into insignificance beside the music of true greatness which formed the first, Gluck’s ‘Di Questa Cetra,’ again the kind of aria which shows the qualities of this singer at her best – supple phrasing, liquid tone and warmly moving word pointing allied to a stage presence which seems almost to invite you to join in with her. No one could, of course, any more than we could get away with wearing that Vivienne Westwood creation in a shade of green that might best be described as ‘Go.’


So, does Salieri really ‘bind all the power of German music to the sweet Italian style?’ No, but neither does he deserve to have been so decisively sidelined, and this recital and the associated disc (Decca CD 475 100-2 SACD 470 631-2) must go a long way to persuade music lovers that such praise is not wholly misguided.



Melanie Eskenazi

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