“From harmony, from heavenly harmony/This universal frame began”, begins John Dryden in his Song for St Cecilia’s Day which Handel famously set to music, forming the centrepiece of mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli and cellist Sol Gabetta’s duo concert. Heavenly harmony was certainly the order of the day, though their fancifully-titled “Dolce Duello” emphasized the competitive virtuosity of the Baroque obbligato aria.

Sol Gabetta and Cecilia Bartoli
© Esther Hasse | Decca

The vivacious Italian and elegant Argentinian certainly seemed to be having the time of their lives, complementing each other beautifully in a succession of mostly unknown arias. At 51, Bartoli’s voice has preserved its radiance, most notably in a breathtakingly long-lined aria from Gabrielli’s San Sigismondo, re di Borgogna. This also displayed Sol Gabetta’s instinctive musicality, responding instantaneously to Bartoli’s phrasing and ornamentation and blending beautifully with the mezzo-soprano’s more daring pianissimi. And despite some rather incomprehensible diction, Bartoli was at her restrained best in “What passion cannot Music raise and quell” from Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, with Gabetta in particularly noble form in the extended introduction and weaving a beautiful melancholy through the hall.

That said, there can be too much of a good thing, and the endless stream of slow arias grew somewhat tiresome. Baroque composers were fond of instrumental obbligatos to elicit certain moods: trumpets for martial arias, flutes to suggest birds, and the cello for introspective melancholy. Though beautiful, it did make for a somewhat unbalanced programme, despite the jolly virtuosic hijinks of the concluding Boccherini aria. This was certainly not aided by Bartoli’s decision to include “Lascia la spina” in her solo segment of the programme, sung at a glacial pace that allowed for some admittedly stunning though indulgent high pianissimi.

Much more satisfying was Gabetta’s performance of Boccherini’s Cello Concerto no. 10 in D major. In contrast to the heroism of his ninth concerto, the tenth is a brief sparkling work nevertheless demanding the utmost virtuosity from the soloist. The concerto was an ideal fit for Gabetta’s elegant sound and flawless technique, particularly the third movement Allegro maestoso which takes the cellist to the extremes of its upper range. More importantly, her phrasing and articulation displayed an appealing theatricality worthy of Bartoli. Here as well best demonstrated the playing of the Cappella Gabetta, led by Sol’s brother Andrés. Elsewhere, the orchestra sounded thin and wiry, often adopting swift tempi that were impressive but often dissipated into the massive Barbican Hall.

As always with a Bartoli concert, the encores are the most entertaining part of the evening, and this was no different. Alongside a stunning rendition of Vivaldi’s “Sovvente il sole”, Bartoli, Gabetta, and the orchestra seemed to be having the time of their lives performing firstly a raucous fandango, complete with castanets and clapping. Then followed possibly the most surreal and entertaining rendition of Rossini’s La danza ever, featuring Bartoli and Gabetta performing the vocal line in unison accompanied by a bevy of Baroque oboes, bassoons and horns, further punctuated by Bartoli’s enthuasiatic tambourine playing. Ernesto de Curtis’ perennial Non ti scordar di me ended the evening’s frivolities, with Bartoli and Gabetta displaying much-needed vivacity and a sense of fun.