Cecilia Bartoli, as is well-known, has been a faithful
Decca artist, and her Decca discography includes two all-Mozart recitals,
both with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra under György Fischer: Decca
430 513-2DH and Decca 443 452-2DH. However, as a result of inter-company
agreements which have allowed Bartoli to team up with conductors and
singers contracted elsewhere, most of her appearances in complete Mozart
operas have been on other labels. Here we have a selection from three
sets in which she took part for Teldec and Erato, now under the Warner
I have started by stressing this because all Bartoli’s
solo discs have been a labour of love in their overall planning; witness
the Gluck recital which I reviewed some time ago and which represented
a total product, from the drawing-board stage to the actual physical
presentation of the disc as an after-thought within a parchment-style
booklet. The strengths and weaknesses which have made Bartoli one of
the phenomena of our times express themselves in the "total product".
Here we have a straightforward compilation made by somebody else, and
I wonder what Bartoli herself thinks of the way in which it was done.
(I am not including this review in my "What is a mezzo-soprano?"
series because of my doubts as to whether this is really "her"
A principal oddity lies in the ordering of the items.
There are only two arias from "Figaro", yet they have been
thoughtfully placed in the opposite order to that in which they appear
in the opera, the idea being, I suppose, that "Non so più"
makes a "better ending". With seven pieces from "Così
fan tutte" to play with, the compiler wends his higgledy-piggledy
way back and forth, ending up, with "Smanie implacabili",
at a point not far distant from that where he started. If your player
has a "random play" button, I suggest you use it, since it
can hardly make things worse and might even straighten them out a bit.
Another oddity lies in the fact that two totally different
styles of playing Mozart are juxtaposed, but this at least raises a
few talking-points. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, of course, has been over many
years the protagonist of an approach to original instruments which is
so far from "play it as written" as to amount to a bitingly
personal vision, for better or worse, of everything he conducts. His
Mozart style involves squeezing the most intense expression out of every
tiny thematic phrase, as opposed to the long legato lines of the past.
This exasperates Bartoli’s own tendency to break the musical line with
"expressive" gulps and sighs, so that it is difficult to realise
where interpretation ends and unevenness begins. It is interesting to
hear how Gruberova is made by Harnoncourt to sing in exactly the same
manner – we all know she is a belcantista by nature. Still, Harnoncourt
is always stimulating and nobody could say this was bland.
But it raises the question, since this disc comes out
as a "Cecilia Bartoli CD"; would she have sung the arias in
this way in a carefully planned recital disc of her own? I have an off-the-air
recording of her singing "Voi che sapete" from "Figaro"
as an encore, with just a piano accompaniment, and here, left to her
own devices, she adopts, at a faster-than-usual tempo, the eager, breathy
little-girl style for which she is loved or loathed. Barenboim will
have none of that; she is expected to sing smoothly at a normal-to-slow
tempo and that is that. The trouble is that she then comes into direct
contest with other singers who have adopted a similar approach, such
as Danco or Berganza, and they prove to have a mastery over the long
line, and a control over tone production, which she does not match.
She also sounds rather matronly here, which she doesn’t when left to
do it her own way. Her "Non so più" is urgently expressed
but apparently divorced from the orchestra which proceeds with an Olympian
calm far removed from the intense participation which the great Erich
Kleiber brought to his accompaniment of Suzanne Danco.
You will have gathered that I didn’t enjoy this very
much, but "Così" brought a surprise. As the "Ah
guarda" duet began with calm, serene playing from the orchestra
and a beautifully poised bel canto line from Lella Cuberli I feared
that Bartoli was going to get a singing lesson, but to my amazement
she took up the music in exactly the same style, her vibrato under control
and with a perfect sense of line. The two singers prove ideal partners.
"E’ amore un ladroncello" is a perfect compromise between
vivacity and musical line – a really fine piece of singing. "Soave
sia il vento" also gets a lovely performance. I did wonder if Barenboim’s
seriousness robbed "Il core vi dono" of some of its fun, but
perhaps you should hear it in context. Serious and slowish as it is,
it has none of the heaviness of Böhm’s famous (I’ve never understood
why) EMI version. While on the other hand "Smanie implacabili"
seemed excessively fast, though Bartoli can certainly cope with the
tempo, and at the same time laid-back orchestrally. Again, the problem
may be hearing it out of context.
In one respect, the presentation is a peg above the
usual sampler: we get the texts and translations. We also get a note
by Chris Tooth in which we learn, among other things, that "Cherubino
… has a marvellously rounded performance from Cecilia Bartoli. The virtuosity
in the breathless ‘Non so più’ is really astonishing, but so
is the vivacity with which the torment of young love is captured".
Since the record arrives ready reviewed one wonders why Warner Classics
troubled to seek comment elsewhere! Seriously, I think that if Tooth
wishes to write in this vein he should do it for one of the many record
magazines or sites; as accompaniment to a CD such enthusiasm is not
credible for the simple fact that, had he thought the opposite, he would
hardly have been allowed to say so here.
If you’re a Cecilia Bartoli fan but have other recordings
of these operas and didn’t feel justified in buying further ones even
for her, then I suppose this disc offers a cheap way of picking up her
principal contributions to the sets (but might we not have had the Cherubino/Susanna
duet from "Figaro"? There was plenty of space left). Taken
as a sampler I can only say it left me uncertain as to whether I should
enjoy the "Lucio Silla" and even more doubtful over the "Figaro",
but very much interested in hearing the complete "Così fan