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on October 2, 2012
The "Mission" of this CD's title has two meanings. One is a reference to the fact that the composer, Agostino Steffani, was throughout his career a man of many missions; for not only was he a musician of genius, he was also a diplomat and priest whose royal and ecclesiastical employers entrusted him with many important tasks, demanding both travelling stamina and negotiating skills in equal measure. The second meaning refers to the mission Cecilia Bartoli has clearly set herself - to introduce, to those who don't already know it, the marvellous music of this long-neglected mid-baroque composer.

The programme consists of a dazzling variety of arias and other extracts from Steffani's operas - all of them originally produced in Hanover or in the other German states where this Italian composer spent his adult life. They are performed by the brilliant Ms Bartoli herself, joined for the duets by no less than Philippe Jaroussky, and supported with both grace and panache by the early-music ensemble I Barocchisti directed by Diego Fasolis. The first few items set the tone superbly, quickly impressing upon the listener the dramatic range of styles and moods of which Steffani was such a master. We start with the brassy, warlike brilliance of `Schiere invitte' from "Alarico il Baltha". It's followed by a lilting, chaconne-like aria of melting beauty and grace from "Servio Tullio", `Ogni core può sperar' (Every heart may hope; mine alone must weep), its instrumental accompaniment with its delicious solo passages ever so tenderly played and just as beautiful; and so here we have an altogether lovely demonstration of Steffani's feeling for word-setting and of his genius for the expression of human emotions - which for today's listeners are among the most enticing qualities of the baroque. This piece is then followed by one of Anfione's profoundly contemplative arias from "Niobe, regina di Tebe".

The majority of the pieces here, as you might expect from a baroque opera collection, concern the moods and trials of love - variously expressing pain, torment, longing, fury, jealousy, ecstasy or triumph. This range is shown in the sheer beauty, subtlety, colour and textural variety of Steffani's fabulous music. In fact there are so many more jewels in this programme that I can only mention a handful of them here. `T'abbraccio, mia Diva' (track 6), again from "Niobe", is a truly exquisite example of Steffani's duet and ensemble writing, sung here to perfection by Bartoli and Jaroussky. Then again, it's followed by the extreme contrast of a triumphantly belligerent aria from "I trionfi del fato", accompanied by trumpets and horns. `Sì, sì, riposa, o caro' (track 10), with its touching delicacy and its catchy, lilting melody ending in sleep, is followed by the different, but equally gentle, rocking gait of `Notte amica al cieco Dio' (Night, you friend of the sightless god) from "La libertà contenta". Another extract from "Niobe" (track 16) brings us "Sfere amiche", Anfione's melancholy aria sung in the company of the stars and planets he loves to watch, with the instruments weaving a wonderfully sinuous accompaniment to his words (Friendly spheres, endow my lips/ with the harmony of your revolutions). `Serena, o mio bel sole' (track 18) is another, most beautiful example of Steffani's mastery of duet form and texture. `Deh stancati, o sorte' (track 20: Ah, cease, o destiny, your torment of me), expressing infinite sadness and longing for death and beautifully enhanced by the accompanying recorders, is another aria from "La libertà contenta" - an opera which, judging from the examples on this disc, I would dearly love to hear in full. An aria from "Henrico Leone" with a lovely, lyrical accompaniment (track 24), followed by a tuneful and triumphant chorus from "Marco Aurelio", bring the programme to a fine, and for once typically baroque-opera, conclusion.

The presentation of the "Deluxe edition" CD version is lavish, with a very substantial booklet, ample superb photos and images of Ms Bartoli, and some attractively presented documentation and maps. All texts, translations and sources are included, although there's no commentary on the pieces chosen for this disc. There is also plenty of genuine and fascinating information about the composer's life written by the acknowledged Steffani expert Colin Timms, as well some rather dubious hype and pseudo-mysterious speculation from other quarters, including the cover as you can see for yourself. In truth there isn't all that much mystery about the composer's life and activities - it sounds good, but most of the supposed mysteries can easily be cleared up by a good look into Colin Timms' excellent book on the composer - Polymath of the Baroque: Agostino Steffani and His Music - published in 2003 but unfortunately quite hard to find these days.

Altogether this is a stunning project, brilliantly executed by Cecilia Bartoli and her colleagues. The singer's voice, agility and expression are all fabulous, as they need to be in these very demanding roles; Diego Fasolis and his excellent musicians do a wonderful job with equally enticing baroque style and feeling, and the recording quality and balance are exemplary. But for me, without a doubt, star billing should go to Agostino Steffani, a seemingly inexhaustible fountain of music and melody with a rare genius for expressing words and emotions. If you fancy investigating his music further, you could try some of the exquisite chamber duets Duetti Da Camera or his final masterpiece, the beautiful "Stabat Mater", in Handel: Dixit Dominus; Steffani: Stabat Mater; or, for a complete opera, Agostino Steffani: Orlando generoso. In the meantime, though, Ms Bartoli and friends offer the ideal introduction to Steffani's wonderful music with "Mission"; fans of the baroque, or of opera in general, simply should not hesitate.
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on October 2, 2012
I got this just a few hours ago, and already I am enchanted. It begins with the audiobook, a beautifully bound book with Bartoli's face staring out at you, charismatic as always. The contents are wonderful, pictures and articles with information that will enhance your understanding of Agostino Steffani, a greatly under known composer. By the time i reached for my computer to play the CD, i was already brimming with anticipation. I was not disappointed. The instrumentals are all lovely, the players have obviously given their best for this project. The vocals from all, not just Bartoli, are amazing. Each song is sung with energy and feeling. But the star is, of course, Cecilia Bartoli. The beauty and agility of her voice draws you in every time, in every song. As always, I am very pleased to have bought her album and wishing, as always, that there were more songs.
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on February 4, 2013
Ms. Bartoli continues to reign as the supreme alto of our time. Her study and research in bringing this music to light is incredible. The "limited edition" packaging in well conceived and executed and full of details that further enhance the musical experience. For lovers of dramatic and fabulously performed music of the later 19th century, this is a disc that will reward generously!!
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on December 14, 2012
She's on a mission to bring music back to life that hasn't been sung, as it should be sung, in 250 years! No "Vissi d'Arte" or "Un bel' di" from Bartoli (not that there's anything wrong with them...). E VIVA!
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on December 15, 2012
Grazie mille to Cecilia Bartoli for rescuing Agostino Steffani from wholly undeserved obscurity. Every moment of music here is exquisite, and the supporting documentation is informative and delightful. If you love the Baroque and pre-Baroque, you will adore this.
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on November 25, 2012
I didn't know Steffani's music until I heard this disc, and had ordered it in reliance on Cecilia Bartoli's reputation and my own prior experience of her singing. I have been delighted with the new experience the music represents. Bartoli's singing is, as usual, precise and quite outstanding.
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on January 27, 2014
The packaging is as beautiful as the music. I love this CD. This is the reason I still buy CD's. The people at Decca have really outdone themselves. After reading the booklet (it's actually more like a book with wonderful photos), I think Agostino Steffani's life story would make a great movie. Thank you Decca, and Cecila Bartoli for this amazing piece of art and history.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon December 5, 2012
This is a terrific disc of arias by Steffani, a little-known baroque composer whom Cecilia Bartoli wants to bring to public attention. In my experience, little-known composers are often little-known for a very good reason, but not Steffani. Bartoli is right - his music is excellent and well worth bringing to light as she does here with a disc made up very largely of first recordings.

And what recordings they are! Bartoli is, as always, excellent. She has a stunning technical mastery and a deep understanding of the music and text she is singing, with the control to avoid spilling into over-emotional self indulgence. Her voice is beautiful, rich and sensuous and she uses it here to create something very special from Steffani's music. The orchestra are also excellent, giving the pieces real drama, passion or a joyous zing as appropriate, and to cap it all Bartioli is joined by the great countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in four duets. It is a pleasure from start to finish.

I am sorry to sound gushing - this disc has a provocative cover and has been very heavily marketed and promoted, which to me often means a rather ordinary product. Not here - this is a terrific CD of fine music, beautifully performed and is warmly recommended.
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on January 15, 2013
Lush, ravishing, all-absorbing - Cecilia Bartoli's performance places Steffani's music in the heavenly spheres where it belongs. And what a back-story! Steffani's life reads like a novel by Umberto Eco. The production effortlessly conceals the painstaking research and musicology which supports it; and on the CD cover, the controversial image of the glamorous soprano as a priest summons you, to seek the treasures within. A must have!
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on February 8, 2013
Cecilia is in great form on this disc of more-than-rare music. The book is something else: interesting but typographically difficult, topics subdivided confusingly. Diction strange. For the difference a competent writer makes, read the companion Donna Leon book, The Jewels of Paradise.
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