Classical reviews - Mission accomplished

by gabeatkinson / 20 December, 2012
And what a mission it is, involving CD, novel, iPad game.
MISSION, Cecilia Bartoli, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis (conductor) (Decca/Universal).

The Mission of the title is Bartoli’s: to resurrect from obscurity the music of baroque composer Agostino Steffani, previously best known as one of Handel’s many sources for operatic plagiarism. Curious, then, that Steffani’s name does not appear on the cover, especially as the lavish book-form packaging (not to mention the related novel, Hollywoodised online trailer, costumed photo-shoot, concert DVD and, bizarrely, iPad game) plays up the composer’s colourful life as bishop, diplomat, and spy to the full. Relish the over-hype or ignore it: this collection of splendid operatic arias and duos (Philippe Jaroussky obliging) is stunningly delivered and magnificently varied, with Fasolis’s period instrument band adding lashes of colour. A rare treat and, who knows, a glimpse into the commercial future of quality classical music?

BACH, Avi Avital (Deutsche Grammophon/Universal).

Bach’s is the most adaptable of music, and once you forget the Neapolitan associations of the bowlback mandolin, its incisive, lightning agility reveals it as a natural instrument for Bach transcription. Here, Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avital, accompanied by the Kammerakademie Potsdam, adapts three concertos (originally violin or oboe) and an accompanied sonata (flute) to the instrument, and proves the point. A solo violin sonata would have proved it even better, but never mind – it’s a joy to hear these musical gems in new settings. There are sweeter-toned mandolins out there: if you feel adventurous, seek out Chris Thile’s bluegrass Brandenburg 3 for comparison. But that’s a detail. Mandolin sceptics,prepare to be converted.

Scene from The Enchanted Island

THE ENCHANTED ISLAND, Danielle de Niese, Joyce DiDonato, David Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Luca Pisaroni, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet, William Christie (director) (Virgin Classics DVD).

Described as a baroque pastiche, Jeremy Sams’s reworking of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a new opera made up of choice extracts from Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others was staged at the Met a year ago. It looks and sounds wonderful, as it should with a cast like this, a wealth of great music to choose from and digital effects to complement colourful staging. Choice moments include Domingo’s appearance, to the strains of Zadok the Priest, as an ecologically aware Neptune, and a Masque to some of Rameau’s musical gems from Les Indes Galantes. Wonderful, but flawed. Only the second act gathers enough variety, pace and pathos to be more than a series of star turns, and even then the libretto never quite rings true: an inner voice kept asking for an opera about baroque opera, not a pretend one.
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