The irrepressible, musically voracious Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli first took on Vivaldi in 1999, devoting an entire recital disc to the composer. The hugely successful album not only established her reputation as an unearther of rare and forgotten repertoire, it also sparked a wider interest in a composer mostly known for The Four Seasons and not much else. Nowadays, he’s recorded and programmed with increasing frequency, his vocal works recognised for their staggering inventiveness.

Almost 20 years later, Bartoli returns to Vivaldi, cannily selecting arias of the more lyric bent. Whereas the first album was a veritable showcase for her trademark virtuosity, this follow-up is on the whole slower and more contemplative, taking advantage of Bartoli’s now richer interpretive skills and subtly doing away with any unkind comparisons to her younger self.

That’s not to say that her instrument shows significant signs of wear and tear. On the contrary, the voice has retained much of its caramel lustre and trademark agility, with Bartoli only betraying any real signs of strain up top. For those desirous of proof, you need only listen to the opening track, Se lenta ancora il fumine. Her precision of attack in this vengeance aria remains second to none, while her command of line is shown off to great effect in the gentle central section. Bartoli is on top form.

Under Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Ensemble Matheus strikes a nice balance between the stylish and characterful, their playing warm and always dramatically involved. Top honours go to flautist Jean-Marc Goujon in Sol da te, mio dolce amore and to trumpet Serge Tizac in the martial Combatta un gentil cor. Both instrumentalist and singer are so fine, it’s hard to say who comes out on top.

Similarly impressive is Quell’augellin che canta, Bartoli preventing the requisite bird chirrups from becoming cloying. Instead, it’s done with minimal fuss and a sincerity that makes the listener actually concentrate on what’s being communicated and there’s classy playing from Spinosi on the violin. Vedró con mio diletto is sung with commendable tenderness, but is just a smidge too mannered to fully draw the listener in. More effective is Leggi almeno tiranna infedele, Bartoli giving even the more sustained phrases a clipped quality that conveys a sense of bitter woundedness. The two selections from Orlando Furiosi are equally compelling, especially Ah fuggi rapido, done with an urgency that borders on the furious.

Not everything is tragic however. Solo quella guancia bella has Bartoli’s wry, zany energy, while Se mai senti spirarti sul volto is exquisitely done, limpid and displaying her extraordinary breath control.

Most beautiful of all is Sovente il sole, Bartoli commanding an astonishingly wide range of colours. She suffuses the aria with a hushed, rapturous quality, demonstrating the kind of soft singing she’s perfected in the last two decades. It’d be no surprise if she goes on singing for two more.

Composer: Vivaldi
Composition: Arias
Performer: Cecilia Bartoli ms, Ensemble Matheus/Jean-Christophe Spinosi
Catalogue Number: Decca 4834475

Cecilia Bartoli’s Antonio Vivaldi is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in March.