Beautiful Music: The Steffani Code?

At the risk of making this blog into a recurrent series of “obscure 18th century composer days” (actually my life is a kind of an ongoing ‘obscure [x] day’), here’s a new discovery to parallel my earlier gushing over Baldassare Galuppi. (Even if you didn’t go listen to the magical clip of his piano music I posted, savor the name at least. Donna Leon couldn’t make up something as wonderful for her Italian mystery series.)

Today’s find is Agostino Steffani, born 1654, a generation and a half before Galuppi, and, like him, overshadowed by big names (Mozart and Gluck in G’s case, Handel in Steffani’s). He did it all as a musician: music director, composer, performer, impresario (not an unusual mash-up in those days, the “profession” of composer wasn’t really cooked yet). Somehow he also found time to be a high-level diplomat, a priest, and then a bishop who ended up advising the pope. And not to go all Dan-Brown-y on Agostino, you can pretty easily imagine him as a spy too. Certainly the Decca publicists do!)

Now he has been taken up by the Italian opera star Cecilia Bartoli, who has, of late, brought the “concept” recording to the world of opera. Bartoli is a controversial character: fervid followers are matched by sharp-tonged critics. (Sample comments from a YouTube video of an Amsterdam concert of hers, “voice of an angel” “belongs in a circus”). I’ll stay out of it…except to say that I worked in opera and circus is not a completely inapplicable term.

A “trailer” for CB’s latest project.

Bartoli has championed little-known composers and unusual programs, now taking up Steffani in a multi-platform recording—really a media blitz—called “Mission.” There’s the recording, a book, a DVD, oh yes, a Donna Leon tie-in, and even an iPad game (for all those baroque-opera-loving tablet users? Really? me and who else?)

Lindsey Kemp of Gramophone (the authoritative and staid magazine on classical music) started his review with, “Oh my word what have we here?” sniffing suspiciously at all the tie-ins. But he found the music-making (both the program and performances) superb. Sample line, “her dazzling virtuoso and urgently expressive performances betoken nothing less than total commitment” (Yeah, a little trite, but behind that I get what he is after. A sometime music critic myself, I have the same recurrent plea, “please don’t bore me, make me believe in this music as much as you do.”)

Mission accomplished, Cecilia.

There’s also a pleasantly goofy promo video.
More sober reflections after I’ve really absorbed the album a bit more (and maybe unlocked the “Vatican” level of the iPad game.) I will not be buying any cookbook, though. Just saying.

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