17 August 2013

CD REVIEW: Agostino Steffani – STABAT MATER & Sacred Choral Music (C. Bartoli, N. Rial, Y. Arias Fernandez, E. Carzaniga, F. Fagioli, D. Behle, J. Prégardien, S. Vitale; DECCA B0018947-02)

Agostino Steffani: STABAT MATER (DECCA B0018947-02)

AGOSTINO STEFFANI (1654 – 1728): Stabat Mater, Beatus vir*, Non plus me ligate*, Triduanas a Domino*, Laudate pueri*, Sperate in Deo*, and Qui diligit Mariam*—C. Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), N. Rial (soprano), Y. Arias Fernandez (soprano), E. Carzaniga (mezzo-soprano), F. Fagioli (countertenor), D. Behle (tenor), J. Prégardien (tenor), S. Vitale (bass); Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis [Recorded in the Auditorio Stelio Molo della Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano, Switzerland, during January, February, and April 2013; DECCA B0018947-02; 1CD, 72:40; *World première recordings]

Were it not for the efforts of Cecilia Bartoli, DECCA, and author Donna Leon, whose novel The Jewels of Paradise is set against the background of the composer’s life, the exquisite music of Agostino Steffani might well still reside only in the archives and libraries to which it had been consigned since the mid-18th Century.  A native of the Veneto who spent his boyhood in Venice in service to the Doge in the choir of the Basilica di San Marco, where the beauty of his voice attracted aristocratic patronage, Steffani received the bulk of his musical education north of the Alps.  Following several years of intense study in Munich, Steffani returned to Italy for a period under the tutelage of Ercole Bernabei, whose career was also eventually centered in Munich.  It was in Rome that several of Steffani’s first known works, a series of motets, were composed.  Steffani again crossed the Alps in order to pursue his professional career.  His gifts for composing music for both the church and the theatre were honed during his service to the Elector of Bavaria: it was in 1688, while he was resident in Munich, that Steffani’s opera Niobe, regina di Tebe—performed to acclaim in recent seasons at the Boston Early Music Festival and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden—was premièred, and his religious devotion found an outlet in music for the Elector’s Catholic court.  It is also likely that it was in Munich that the composer took holy orders.  Soon after the successful première of Niobe, regina di Tebe, Steffani assumed the position of Kapellmeister at the court of the Electors of Hanover, and such was the esteem in which he was held by his new employers that, when he ascended to the throne of Great Britain as George I, the Elector took with him to London a number of Steffani’s scores in manuscript, where they remain in the care of Her Majesty’s Library at Buckingham Palace.  Steffani’s music was sufficiently well-regarded in his employer’s new capital that, though the composer never traveled to London, the members of the Academy of Vocal Music in that city elected Steffani as their honorary president, prompting him to compose for their benefit some of his most beautiful motets and madrigals, one of which—‘Qui diligit Mariam’—is, like all of the works on this disc except for the ‘Stabat mater,’ here recorded for the first time.  The ‘Stabat mater,’ too, was gifted by its composer to the Academy of Vocal Music, but the sheer scale of the piece and the scoring for instrumental accompaniment suggest that it was likely originally composed for another institution.  What cannot be doubted that is the fact that Steffani applied the full richness of his musical genius and special devotion to the Blessed Virgin to the creation of his ‘Stabat mater’ or the irony of some of the finest blossoms of his Catholic fervor having been cultivated under Protestant patronage.  While there are perhaps also political lessons to be learned from this, the obvious education that can be had from this disc concerns the sophistication, beauty, and originality of Steffani’s sacred music.

The participation of wonderful solo singers notwithstanding, any recording of sacred vocal music that relies so prominently upon concerted choral singing cannot succeed without the participation of a choir of top quality.  The Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera, thirty-four singers strong, respond to every challenge they encounter in Steffani’s music with technical aplomb.  Wonderful as their singing is in the ‘Stabat mater,’ they rise to extraordinary heights of dramatic expression in the concluding ‘Qui diligit Mariam,’ in which Steffani puts them through their paces with contrapuntal passages of great intricacy.  One of the most satisfying aspects of the choristers’ performance is their contrasting of thrillingly robust singing with moments of rapt quietude.  ‘Beatus vir’ and ‘Triduanas a Domino,’ the choral numbers without soloists, are rapturously sung, Steffani’s part writing providing each section of the choir with opportunities to exercise their techniques to the full.  Throughout their performances on this disc, the choristers sing with a mastery of Steffani’s idiom that confirms their position as one of Europe’s most versatile choirs.  The choir and soloists are ably accompanied by the instrumentalists of I Barocchisti, one of the finest ensembles specializing in historically-informed performances of 17th- and 18th-Century music.  Led by Diego Fasolis, the players bring both awe-inspiring technical skill and suavity to their performance, each of the instrumentalists playing with unfettered virtuosity and contributing to the richness of ensemble.  Blending the timbres of period instruments can be challenging, but Maestro Fasolis achieves admirable results with I Barocchisti, the distinct instrumental tones balanced insightfully.  Continuo parts are inventively but unobtrusively rendered, with the organ and theorbos making especially eloquent showings.  Maestro Fasolis, equally accomplished in the Masses and Passions of Bach and in sacred and secular vocal music of the Italian Baroque, is an ideal interpreter of the music of Steffani, which unites the Teutonic traditions of Schütz, Telemann, and Bach with those of the Italian late Renaissance and High Baroque.  These expert musicians deliver outstanding performances, providing the kind of support for which all singers long but so few receive, even in the recording studio.

Cecilia Bartoli’s zeal for rediscovering, performing, and recording Steffani’s music is the raison d’être for this disc, but as in all of the projects that enjoy her advocacy she brings to this recording absolute preparedness.  Though her voice remains a full-bodied mezzo-soprano with access to a colorful, well-supported lower register, Ms. Bartoli here sings music conceived by the composer for soprano.  The motet ‘Non plus me ligate,’ Steffani’s only surviving sacred composition for solo soprano, receives from Ms. Bartoli a performance in which all of the best qualities of her singing are in evidence: crisp diction with consonants sharply defined and vowels properly placed on the beat, sovereign command of the requisite bravura technique, and complete security of tone throughout the range.  Ms. Bartoli explores the nuances of the melancholic text without artificially darkening either her tone or her approach, conveying the despondency of the verses by articulation of the text and the artful interplay among the voice and the violins.  In past, Ms. Bartoli’s enthusiasm and emphatic delivery have occasionally led to her singing overpowering the music at hand, but her singing in this performance mixes audible love for the music—and for singing it—with restraint born of genuine respect for the texts and the unwavering faith with which the composer set them.

Ms. Bartoli is joined in ‘Qui diligit Mariam,’ so lovingly performed by the choir, by Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli and Italian bass Salvo Vitale.  Mr. Vitale’s impressively deep voice has the slightly shallow sound typical of basses who specialize in Baroque repertory, but the strength of his lower register is impressive and wonderfully effective in this performance.  His singing of the verse beginning with ‘Tempus est de somno surgere’ is suitably ringing, the metaphorical call to spiritual awareness aptly conveyed by the powerful sound of Mr. Vitale’s voice.  Mr. Fagioli, one of the most gifted young countertenors singing today, partners Ms. Bartoli in music with what was designated by Steffani as soprano tessitura, and his singing here and throughout his performances on this disc is remarkable for the ease with which he meets every challenge of range, his lower and upper registers proving equally firm.  Moreover, the beauty of his tone is utterly stunning.  His duetting with Ms. Bartoli on the verse starting with ‘Non pavescat lethales horrores’ is a display of early bel canto singing at its most refined, the two singers breathing as one as their voices intertwine magically in expression of the notion that sorrow and fear are transformed into comfort and hope by devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

In both the ‘Laudate pueri’ and ‘Sperate in Deo,’ high parts are entrusted to Cuban soprano Yetzabel Arias Fernandez and Spanish soprano Núria Rial.  Both singers are celebrated performers of Baroque repertory, and their experience in the music of Händel serves them well in this recording.  In both of the works in which they sing, Ms. Fernandez and Ms. Rial alternate passages of high-lying coloratura, each singer showing her mettle with poised voicing of Steffani’s vocal lines.  The singers’ timbres are contrasted, however, Ms. Fernandez’s voice having a bright, slightly edgy quality that shines in the upper reaches of her part and Ms. Rial’s tone disclosing a darker patina.  Mr. Fagioli sings gloriously in ‘Laudate pueri’ and ‘Sperate in Deo,’ his performance of the verses ‘Suscitans a terra inopem’ and ‘Ut collocet eum’ in the former again displaying the arresting beauty of his voice.  Mr. Vitale’s voice is steady and resonant in both works, and mezzo-soprano Elena Carzaniga makes the most of her lines in ‘Gaudet justus’ in ‘Sperate in Deo.’  The level of accomplishment in the singing of both works is considerably enhanced by the performances of German tenors Daniel Behle and Julian Prégardien.  Sons of acclaimed parents who share their vocation, Mr. Behle the son of noted dramatic soprano Renate Behle and Mr. Prégardien the son of celebrated lyric tenor Christoph Prégardien, both men sing superbly.  Mr. Behle’s faculty for adapting his lovely lyric voice, so effective in the Lieder of Schubert and Richard Strauss, to tessitura similar to that of haute-contre parts in French Baroque opera is fantastic.  The gentlemen prove mellifluous in duet in ‘Excelsus super omnes’ in ‘Laudate pueri,’ and Mr. Prégardien’s singing of ‘Sunt breve’ in ‘Sperate in Deo,’ the text dealing with the transiency of mortal ills and injuries, is extremely appealing.

Scored for a quintet of soloists comprised of two sopranos, an alto, two tenors, and a bass, the ‘Stabat mater’ was Steffani’s last completed sacred work.  The composer himself esteemed the piece above all of his other sacred works, and the performance on this disc suggests that Steffani’s regard for the ‘Stabat mater’ was justified.  Though the style employed by Steffani in his ‘Stabat mater’ was already falling out of fashion by the time of its composition in the 1720s, he poured the best of his art into the score.  Much of the music in the ‘Stabat mater’ recalls the sacred compositions of the Venetian High Baroque that Steffani would have heard and performed at the Basilica di San Marco in his youth, but there are also occasional precursors of the gallant style refined by Pergolesi and Domenico Scarlatti in their settings of the text.  Ms. Bartoli introduces the work with a radiant account of ‘Stabat mater dolorosa,’ and she follows this with passage after passage of sumptuous singing.  Here, too, Mr. Fagioli matches Ms. Bartoli’s vigor and technical acumen, his silken tone enveloping the text in silvery hues.  Steffani’s tone painting is far subtler than Pergolesi’s, but he had a sure sense of matching texts with music that captured their meaning.  Mr. Behle and Mr. Prégardien share the touching passage ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum,’ in which the poet pleads for the gift of feeling the Virgin’s love for Christ as she herself felt it, the voices intertwining luminously: less beautiful voices, wielded by less insightful singers, could not have put across the mysticism of the passage so believably.  Mr. Vitale sings energetically, his reliability in very low tessitura especially welcome in exposed passages.  All of the artists—soloists, choristers, instrumentalists, and conductor—contribute their finest work to the ‘Stabat mater,’ collaborating in a performance that radiates the spirit of devout contemplation of the sorrows of the Blessed Mother that so obviously filled the composer’s heart.

Since the dawn of sound recording, many of the best recordings of sacred music have been given life by DECCA.  Even among the cumulative richness of the DECCA catalogue, this recording of Agostino Steffani’s setting of the ‘Stabat mater’ and other sacred texts wins a very prominent place.  In assemblages of exceptional musicians, the prospects of performances that permanently alter the listener’s perceptions of a composer or his music are mesmerizing, yet so often the listener is ultimately disappointed.  The only possible disappointment inspired by this disc is that these enticing, earnestly pious works waited so long for a recording of this quality.