AUGOSTINO STEFFANI: Stabat Mater; Beatis vir; Non plus me ligate; Triduanas a Domino; Laudate pueri; Sperate in Deo; Qui diligit Mariam – Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-sop.)/ Salvatore Vitale (bass)/ Daniel Behle (tenor)/Franco Fagioli (countertenor), Julian Prégardien (tenor)/ Nuria Rial & Yetzabel Arias Fernandez (sop.)/ Swiss Radio Chorus/ I Barocchisti/ Diego Fasolis – Decca B0018947, 72:40 [Distr. by Universal] *****:
Agostino Steffani (1653-1728), an Italian composer, priest and diplomat, is the subject of Cecelia Bartoli’s latest studio effort, now being touted as part of the “Steffani Project.” With the enormous success of her Mission album which first introduced the composer to us, it was inevitable that a sequel follow, especially one to contain what many regard as the composer’s greatest work—including the composer—his Stabat Mater. I will not rehash the Steffani story here—check out my previous review for that.
There have been other Steffani recordings, but Bartoli brings a passion and commitment surely unknown on the contemporary scene. And the hype is true about his Stabat Mater—it’s every bit the equal to Pergolesi’s, Bartoli’s last Stabat Mater recording—maybe even better. This one is full of fire and drama, real opera taken into the church, not at all that different in temperament from Verdi’s masterpiece Requiem, without some of the histrionics. Steffani was fiercely devoted to the Virgin Mary, and this piece, composed one month before his death, is not only his swan song, but one of the most reverent and eloquent examples of the genre ever written.
This disc contains all of the sacred music ascribed to the composer, save two pieces in manuscript form, and can be confidently attributed to him. What is amazing is the quality of the motets, fervent and astonishingly beautiful choral gems that radiate devotion and beauty—you cannot help but be moved by them. And his earliest sacred setting in the concertato form, Sperate in Deo, is every bit as enthralling as his later work, especially the memorable Laudate pueri.
Bartoli shares the spotlight this time with an all-star cast that sing brilliantly. Bartoli herself, as I noted in the previous review, now possesses a darker, richer voice that is still able to hit the high notes when needed, but is even more formidable in the lower register. Her tonal quality is superb, and her emotive abilities still make her the best dramatic singing female vocalist in the world today. Decca’s sound is a little overwrought, giving too much highlight to the famous mezzo that sounds a tad unnatural, and the recording is quite bright. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles compared to the marvelous quality of the singing, the sensational performances, and the fabulous music. It will be interesting to see what Cecelia Bartoli has up her sleeve for the next Steffani issue—surely she won’t stop here.