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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


HOFFNUNG for CHRISTMAS? an ideal Christmas present for yourself or your friends.
Books posted the day the order is received

RECORDINGS OF THE MONTH


Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Italian Arias

Antigono: Berenice, che fai?, La Clemenza di Tito: Tremo fraí dubbi miei, Ah, taci, barbaro ÖCome potresti, oh Dio!, Se mai senti spirarti sul volto, La Corona: Quel chiaro rio, Ezio: Misera, dove son! Ö Ah! Non sono io che parlo, Il Parnaso confuso, Di questa cetra in seno, La Semiramide riconosciuta: Ciascun siegua il suo stile Ö Maggior follia
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo soprano), Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Bernhard Forck (leader)
Recorded in the Studios of the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg, Berlin, 8 & 11-16.1.2001
DECCA 467 248-2 [67.34]


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Now this has got to be great. Well, it really does have to be, doesnít it! Cecilia Bartoli, fabulous Cecilia Bartoli, with those deep, dark eyes riveting you from the cover (but classically draped to match the subject, a far cry from the days when her selling-point was her motor-bike leather and, yes, I confess it, I looked back over my shoulder with the rest of them when I saw her poster on the billboards). This is classical musicís hottest young female singer and thereís nothing I or any other critic can say to convince you otherwise. The question is, do I want to?

Now, to take a more down-to-earth line, letís start with the programme. And weíve got to admire her for putting her clout behind a record of Gluck, and a record of Gluck without an Orfeo or an Alceste in sight. This is all pre-reform, Italian-period Gluck, to texts by Metastasio, and six out of eight are claimed as first recordings (how extraordinary, in this age of rediscoveries, that so many Gluck operas have remained buried). As a publicity ploy, this might pay off, and it deserves to; and if it does, Gluck will benefit as much as Bartoli, so letís admit that it shows a real love of music to do this.

A love shared, I would say, by all concerned. I daresay sales would have been much the same with a scrappy booklet and no texts, but we get a handsome hardcover book which, though small, would grace any coffee table. In thick, glossy paper, old-style lettering and artificially yellowing pages (but hey, this is a disc thatís meant to last, what colour will this paper be when itís really old?), it carries a thorough essay by Claudio Osele plus full texts in four languages, reproductions of contemporary paintings and engravings and, slipped delicately into the back of it, an afterthought as it were, is the little matter of the disc itself.

Another aspect is the time and care that must have gone into the accompaniments. The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin are a very high class early-instrument group. All too many early instrument groups these days have become so proficient at their job, and so eager to expunge memories of the time when early instruments just sounded like bad instruments badly played, that their one desire in life seems to be to persuade listeners that they are not really playing old instruments at all, so whereís the point of it? The Berlin group combine a clear relish of the piquant timbres of their instruments and the "unusual" (to our ears) orchestral balances that emerge, with an absolute precision of intonation and ensemble and a real rapport with the singer. And all this, look you, with a leader not a conductor, and this surely means real rehearsals and real musicianship from singer and players alike, when a hard-boiled professional band under a hack conductor could have sightread the accompaniments on the spot.

No doubt all these extras will be covered by the sales of the record, but when we think of all the cost-cutting that could have gone on without adverse effect on the economic return we can only be thankful that there are still people in high places who care about these things, and oneís eye lights on the well-respected name of Christopher Raeburn as producer and suspects he might have had something to do with it.

So on to the Bartoli phenomenon itself, and phenomenon it is. She has been criticised in the past for two things in particular: her aspirates and her vibrato. Regarding the aspirates I can give her a clean bill of health; her brilliant passage-work is all crystal clear without a trace of an unwanted "h" anywhere. And not long ago I was listening to a bass "hahaha-ing" his way through the Bach Christmas Oratorio so Iím the first to protest at an aspirate when I hear one. I also note less of the breathy, little-girl eagerness which used to be a mannerism. Is she growing up?

About the vibrato, I laid into her contribution to the recent recording of Rossiniís Le nozze di Teti (DECCA 466 328-2) pretty unceremoniously. I donít know if those sessions were particularly fraught, or whether she was having a bad day, but here I find that, though the thing is pushed continually to the brink, it does seem to be under deliberate control. I also find that it is part and parcel of her artfully feminine way of keeping us guessing (this is one aspect of the Bartoli phenomenon). Will the next phrase come out schoolgirlishly "straight" and pure, or will she turn on the full vibrato? If you want to hear her absolutely tearing passion to tatters, and apparently the voice with it, go to Vitelliaís aria "Ah, taci" from La Clemenza di Tito. But then turn to the piece from La Semiramide riconosciuta and its plentiful trills allow us to study what she means by a trill and what she means by vibrato. If the rapid oscillation is between two recognisable notes, that is to say a semitone or a tone apart, then itís a trill. If itís between something much smaller then itís vibrato. But the technique is the same. Itís not the same thing as the natural vibrations of a voice which is not making a deliberate vibrato but simply resonating freely. And it is emphatically not the tremor, all too easily disguised as vibrato but ending up as sheer squalliness, of a voice which lacks proper breath-support. If Bartoli lacked that essential, she just couldnít hold the long, high lines as she does in many of the slow arias. So the vibrato is a deliberate part of her vocal production and we have to take it as part of the phenomenon.

Another of her mysteries is, is she really a soprano or a mezzo? Logic would say that, when she can hold a high, pure line going up to an effortless top B, as she does in Sestoís aria from Clemenza, when her coloratura sometimes goes higher and when the general tessitura of the pieces is that of a soprano, albeit one able to descend below middle C from time to time, then she must be a soprano. But then her middle register assumes a contralto-like richness which enables her to move downwards without recourse to chest tones (any soprano can do a Marlene Dietrich imitation if she wants to). On the other hand, she can also take her chest voice up remarkably high. And these are all things which denote a mezzo-soprano. So she remains individual, elusive and, above all fascinating.

She is also a singer of our time. It is said that those who hear her live find her voice disappointingly small. I canít speak of this from experience but even if it were so, I donít know if this necessarily disqualifies her as a great singer in a loudspeaker dominated age; the important thing is that the results coming out of the loudspeaker are those intended and that they reach the public they are aimed at. And ever since the gramophone was invented there have been singers (famously Peter Dawson) who were essentially gramophone singers and others (in the post-war years, Leyla Gencer and Raina Kabaivanska) whose voices recorded badly and were in fact recorded very little. The recitative to the Ezio piece seems to me pure "microphone singing" and would hardly come across the footlights live (I presume she gives it more sound in public?). But when the object is to make a recording, and when it succeeds on these terms, does this matter?

It occurs to me that I havenít said anything about Gluck himself. The notes begin by quoting him as stating, in the preface to the first real "reform" opera, Alceste, "I have made every effort to restore music to its true role of serving the poetry by means of its powers of expression". Cynics always did say that this stemmed from a recognition that his music was not of itself sufficiently strong in personality to hold the stage except in tandem with the librettist. Here, some years before his "reform", his music forms a perfect vehicle for the singer to go through the whole gamut of the charactersí emotions. It is all totally effective (I thought only that the Semiramide aria was banal; the notes attribute an ironic sense to this. Unfortunately, irony in music tends not to outlive the age it was written for). At the end I found I remembered the moods, which are clearly delineated and well-varied, and the general experience, rather than any particular phrase, but this is not incoherent with Gluckís intentions. Maybe the music will lodge itself in my memory on rehearing it (I shall certainly do so). Even so, my appetite is whetted to hear these unrecorded operas complete.

I think no one will remain indifferent to this disc. It is an absolutely involving experience by one of the phenomena of our times.

Christopher Howell


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