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 Recording of the Week, Dolce Duello - Cecilia Bartoli and Sol Gabetta

When I first heard that Cecilia Bartoli and Sol Gabetta were teaming up for a recording of baroque music for cello and voice, the combination didn’t strike me as particularly out of the ordinary – partly because the affinity between the cello and the human voice is so well documented that it’s almost become a cliché to compare them, and partly because the instrument plays such a prominent continuo role in music of this period. But once I gave it some thought, I realised that arias with cello obbligato are actually few and far between in general: the only operatic examples which sprang to mind were Zerlina’s ‘Batti, batti’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Philip’s great insomniac monologue in Verdi’s Don Carlo[s]. As my friend and colleague Alexandra Coghlan points out in her thoughtful booklet-note, the sort of high-octane sparring (not all of it necessarily good-natured!) which frequently took place between solo instrumentalists and star castratos in baroque opera tended to pit the voice against the more martial timbres of brass instruments – I think of the trumpets which echo the hero’s call-to-arms in ‘Or la tromba’ from Handel’s Rinaldo, or the pair of horns which represent hunters stalking their prey in the same composer’s Giulio Cesare.

With so little standard repertoire at their disposal, Gabetta and Bartoli (always game for a good rummage round the archives) have unearthed and polished a collection of little gems, including three arias which have never been recorded before – indeed the two Caldara world premieres are the stand-out tracks on the disc for me.

The performances are shot through with the same sense of effervescent, quirky camaraderie that’s on show in the booklet-photos: the emphasis is squarely on the ‘dolce’ part of the title rather than the ‘duello’, so that the atmosphere is one of congenial, collaborative music-making as opposed to the one-upmanship that often played out when castrati were pitted against trumpets in the gladiatorial arena of the opera-house. Though the collection does include a smattering of operatic arias, several tracks are drawn from serenatas and occasional music rather than dramatic works, and everything here feels like chamber music rather than virtuoso display.

That’s not to say that there’s any shortage of the vocal pyrotechnics which are Bartoli’s stock-in-trade. The Italian mezzo has always struck me as a singer with a particularly ‘instrumental’ quality to the voice, her phenomenal flexibility putting me very much in mind of Frederick the Great’s description of a star soprano who’d impressed him at court: ‘She does everything a flute or violin can do, with infinite speed and agility!’. She and Gabetta are so perfectly in sync during their joint flurries of semiquavers in the brief coloratura aria from Albinoni’s Il Nascimento dell’Aurora that it almost seems as if a single musician is double-stopping the cascades of thirds and sixths, and in the slower arias (such as the plangent siciliano from Handel’s Arianna) the two mirror one another’s ornamentation, articulation and even tone-colour to mesmerising effect.

A third contender enters the fray for two of the tracks – Sol’s violinist brother Andreas, who spars thrillingly with his sister in the extended introduction and coda to an aria from Caldara’s Gianguir, Imperatore del Mogol (foreshadowings of ‘Marten aller Arten’ from Mozart’s Die Entführung here!) and aids her in conjuring up the breezes which the singer apostrophises in ‘Aure voi’ from Gabrielli’s San Sigismondo from 1687 (the earliest work on the recording).

If the Boccherini cello concerto which rounds off the disc feels like a bit of a non sequitur (Bartoli is of course absent, and it post-dates the latest of the arias by almost five decades), there’s no faulting the sunny energy of the performance. It feels like a slight missed opportunity not to include his ‘Aria Academica’ for voice and cello, but that’s a minor caveat – this collection of ‘sweet duels’ is a delight from start to finish.

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo), Sol Gabetta (cello), Cappella Gabetta, Andres Gabetta

Dolce Duello is released today on Decca Classics.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC