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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1750): Saeviat tellus inter rigores (HWV 240)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Exsultate, jubilate (KV 165 / 158a)
Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): In caelo stelle clare
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): In furore iustissimae irae (RV 626)

Julia Lezhneva, soprano
Il Giardino Armonico
dir. Giovanni Antonini

Decca 478 5242

The frontispiece of the booklet mentions only the names of the artists. The track-list has a title, though: "Alleluia". That can be explained from the fact that the four compositions on the programme all end with an Alleluia. These pieces fall into the category of the motet. We have to do here with pieces which have little in common with what has come down to us under that name from a long tradition. Just forget the motets by Palestrina or even Bach. These pieces are the religious counterparts of the secular cantatas, which were vehicles for singers to show their skills.

Even so, these pieces are not quite the same. Vocal virtuosity is especially the feature of Vivaldi's motet In furore iustissimae irae. That doesn't mean that there is no connection between text and music, but the main item here is the vocal acrobatics. The liner-notes make a reference to a musicologist who calls Vivaldi's motets ‘concertos for voice’. That seems an apt description.

In some sense the motet In caelo stelle clare by Nicola Antonio Porpora is the opposite of Vivaldi's. It has the same structure: a sequence of recitatives and arias, closing with an Alleluia. The latter is the most brilliant part of this piece, as the arias are more lyrical and reflect the galant idiom of which Porpora was an exponent.

Vivaldi didn't compose his motets for a specific occasion. That is different with Handel's Saeviat tellus inter rigores which was composed for a celebration of the Carmelite Order held in Rome on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1707. The opening aria is the most technically challenging part of this piece, especially because of its range which goes to the high D.

It makes sense to end the programme with Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, one of his most famous and frequently-performed compositions. In fact, this motet was the starting point of this recording. It shares its brilliance with the motets by Vivaldi and Handel. It was also written to make the interpreter shine. In this case that was the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini who performed it in Milan in 1773. The orchestra has been extended with winds, and in the second aria the soloist is expected to add a cadenza. The Alleluia follows attacca.

Julia Lezhneva is a young bright star on the music scene, who is especially attracted to early music. That comes as a surprise considering her Russian background. It was Cecilia Bartoli's Vivaldi album of 1999 - with the same orchestra, Il Giardino Armonico - which inspired her to focus on early music. One is inclined to think that that particular disc was at least good for something. Ms Lezhneva didn't want to sing opera on her first solo recording for Decca. "I liked the idea of waiting to record opera arias until I had more experience with them on stage". That makes a lot of sense, and suggests that she is more interested in doing justice to the music than to display her great skills.

I first heard her in an opera recording, though: Vivaldi's L'oracolo in Messenia, under the direction of Fabio Biondi. I was impressed by the purity of her voice, her excellent diction and her stylish interpretation. Those qualities are present here as well. All items are thoroughly convincing. Her delivery is pretty good; in most cases one can understand the text, even when the orchestra plays forte. I also like her differentiated treatment of dynamics.

A couple of issues need to be mentioned, though. I don't know who wrote the cadenza in Mozart: I have heard better ones. In some arias Ms Lezhneva takes a bit too much freedom in the repeats. She is rightly generous in adding ornamentation, but virtually rewriting the vocal line as for instance in the second aria from Vivaldi's motet is too much of a good thing. Several times I noticed a slight tremolo in her voice, especially when she sings forte. Too often her trills also sound like a strong tremolo. Somewhat slower trills would be nice.

Even so, this is an impressive solo debut. Despite the title page of the booklet it is not the singer who is in the centre here, but rather the music. And so it should be.

Johan van Veen, 1 July 2013

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