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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Lucio Silla (1): Il tenero momento, Pupille amate, D’elisio in sen m’attendi, Cecilio, a che t’arresti, Quest’improvviso tremito, Le nozze di Figaro (2): Voi, che sapete, Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio, Così fan tutte (3): Ah guarda, sorella, E’ amore un ladroncello, Soave sia il vento, Prenderò quel brunettino, Il core vi dono, Ah, scostati, Smanie implacabili
Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), Edith Gruberova (soprano) (1), Yvonne Kenny (soprano) (1), Lella Cuberli (soprano) (3), Ferruccio Furlanetto (baritone) (3), John Tomlinson (bass) (3), Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (2, 3)
Locations: Konzerthaus, Vienna (live) (1), Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin (2, 3)
Dates: 4th-6th June 1989 (1), 6th-17th May 1990 (2), 3rd-12th November 1989 (3)
WARNER CLASSICS 0630 14074-2 [53’56"]
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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 Classics umbrella.

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" recital).

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 tutte".

Christopher Howell


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