The buzz in the Grote Zaal of the Concertgebouw was palpable for many minutes before the entrance of Cecilia Bartoli and Muhai Tang. It was one of those occasions when even an audience member who knew nothing of the artists in question could hardly have failed to anticipate something special, purely from the pent-up exhilaration of the audience. The roar of applause when Bartoli made her entrance did not relieve the tension of anticipation so much as bring it to a tingling height.

Cecilia Bartoli © Decca / Uli Weber
Cecilia Bartoli
© Decca / Uli Weber

Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, an audience favourite from Bartoli’s repertoire, opened the concert. It was apparent from the Kammerorchester Basel’s first phrases that 18th-century notions of grace and sentiment were to rule the evening. Bartoli made use of an exquisitely judged pianissimo at many points throughout the motet. Her famed coloratura was exceptionally precise and delicately placed, and it seemed to me that she focused greatly on the joyful, dancing lilt of Mozart’s phrasing, channelling the barely containable exuberance evident in her earlier performances of this work into a more refined and economical form. The elegant, sympathetic playing of Tang’s orchestra was perfectly in accordance with this rather mature and graceful interpretation. Their account of ”Tu virginem corona” was tender and moving, and the dance-like character of the “Alleluia” has never been more evident to me.

Bartoli made a striking figure, elegantly dressed in a black trouser-suit with a richly ruffled white shirt, evoking her affinity with both the castrati and the female breeches performers of the classical stage. She performed several arias originally written for castrati in the evening’s programme. “Parto, parto” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito was sung with lyrical tenderness and great sincerity. Markus Niederhauser gave a deliciously liquid and sensitive rendering of the clarinet solo. Sesto’s rondo “Deh, per questo istante” allowed Bartoli to show her precision of phrasing and the apparently effortless freedom of her emotional range, supported by spacious and refined playing from the strings in the opening adagio.

Another of Sesto’s arias, this time from a different version of La Clemenza, was also included. The Czech composer and friend of Mozart Josef Myslivecek composed a version of this opera in 1774, using the same libretto of Metastasio as Mozart was to use (in an updated version) in 1791. Sesto’s aria “Se mai senti” received its modern première by Cecilia Bartoli and the Kammerorchester Basel in Prague on 12November of this year, a matter of some ten days before its Dutch première in Amsterdam on Friday. With its graceful, lyrical – really, extremely Mozartean – phrasing, the aria showed off Bartoli’s fine legato and warm middle voice to admiration, and was showcased charmingly by the Mozart selections from the same opera.

Haydn’s “Al tuo seno fortunato” introduced a note of real drama and grandeur, and Bartoli’s voice took on a searing, knife-edge gleam, showing the glittering diamond top she had been holding in reserve for the spectacular coloratura and majestic cadenza which ended the first half of the concert. Hints of her rather gloriously butch chest voice were evident too, given the formidable range of this aria. The brass section also got a chance to shine here, ringing out in triumphant fanfare, then in imitation with the strings and vocal line.

The orchestra was beautifully balanced throughout. Transparent textures and sensitivity of phrasing were constantly present under Muhai Tang’s fluid, imaginative direction. I found the resonant glow of the cello and double bass sections particularly rich and lovely. The projected orchestral personality was one of deep and sympathetic feeling expressed with discretion and delicacy. Sadly, the information provided at the concert could not tell me which cellist took the solo in the Adagio cantabile from Haydn’s Thirteenth Symphony. His playing was superb: sensitive, restrained and full of yearning warmth.

In the Finale from Johann Baptist Vanhal’s Symphony in G minor, and Joseph Martin Kraus’ overture to Olympie, the orchestra seemed to draw on the tension of the audience for performances of sustained drama. The same powerful channelling of the audience's energy was evident in Haydn’s dramatic set piece Berenice che fai? After the grippingly taut recitative, the passionate aria “Non partir bel idol mio” held the audience utterly rapt.

As an encore, Bartoli sang Cherubino’s aria “Voi che sapete” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The conductor stood aside for much of this aria, seeming to lead the orchestra only with the occasional wave, and making delicate byplay with Bartoli by handing her roses from his bouquet. To the delight of the audience, both returned to the stage for a second encore, a repeat of the “Alleluia” from Exsultate, jubilate. At the Concertgebouw, there are two wings of seating behind the stage, and for this encore, Bartoli turned her back on the main hall, and in a characteristically friendly gesture, sang directly to the audience behind, returning to face the hall only for the very last phrase. The acoustic clarity of the Grote Zaal meant that barely any sound was lost when Bartoli faced away from us. As an example of her consistent generosity in performance, it only added to the pleasure we felt at this marriage of emotional sincerity with artistic skill.