Agostino Steffani, roughly contemporary with Arcangelo Corelli, worked mostly in Germany and was known across the continent for his operatic music. Some of it was championed by mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli on her daring Mission album. Now Bartoli, properly more in the background as part of a sacred-music ensemble, returns with an album of Steffani's religious music, for which he was equally renowned. She joins a group of fine soloists, many of whom will be familiar to early music devotees and quite worthy of the broader audience association with Bartoli and the major Decca label will bring. The vigorous instrumental ensemble I Barocchisti, its leader Diego Fasolis, and the commendably sizable Swiss Radio Choir are all top-notch. As for the music itself, the six sacred pieces (psalms, antiphons, motets) that conclude the album give the best idea of the diversity of Steffani's style. Some are partly in the pure Palestrina traditional unaccompanied choral style; some are in the Italian style of the middle 17th century with grand oppositions of choral groups; and some reflect up-to-the-minute solo vocal writing. Bartoli fans will naturally gravitate toward an example of the latter, Non plus me ligate (track 9), and it's gorgeous. But Bartoli, whose voice has taken on some fascinating burnished tones that she is allowed to let speak for themselves here, is also featured prominently in the main attraction, the Stabat Mater, which stands somewhat apart from the rest of the music and fell into disuse soon after Steffani's death, probably because it was already somewhat old-fashioned. But it is old-fashioned in the way that Bach's music is old-fashioned. Like Pergolesi's setting of this somber text, it was the composer's swan song, written at the end of his long life, and it is a tragic work indeed. It might be beautifully paired in performance with the Pergolesi work. Bartoli and her gorgeous lower register have plenty to do, but the spotlight at the end falls on the male soloists, Daniel Behle, Julian Prégardien, and Salvo Vitale, whose trio work is positively sepulchral. This is a gorgeous performance of a work unjustly neglected by music history. Highly recommended.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim