Bought this for Julia Lezhneva as I find Graun generally to be big on florid and lacking drama and emotion. On first hearing it I felt that the singing was amazing but it was a bit boring and lacking real emotion in the music writing. I have now listened to it about 8 or 9 times on the trot and am completely won over by Lezhneva, who in the midst of singing perhaps the most difficult music I have heard with astonishing technique and pitch manages to also bring drama and poignancy to the music. She makes the music better than it is time and time again. I don't think I have ever heard such complex runs and decorations sung with such ease and accuracy. Worth getting and persevering with. The rewards are huge.
This is a stunning album, uniting one of the great vocal artists of our time with a fine forgotten composer in a performance that leaves me itching for the chance to see a full Graun opera staged. Lezhneva has a phenomenal range, extraordinary precision coupled with inventiveness, and astonishing emotional conviction underpinned by a rare interpretative intelligence, and she specialises in bringing out the psychological intensity of the mid-eighteenth-century aria. In Graun she has found a composer each of whose arias gives her the chance to explore a complex emotional narrative, anger turning to grief, excitement mutating into reflection, every mood conveyed with a commitment that leaves you feeling at the end of each piece that you've completed on a journey through a wholly satisfying dramatic experience. If you haven't heard Lezhneva before you'll be bowled over by her virtuosity; I really think there's nothing she can't do with her voice. The warmth of Graun's music allows her to display a side of her talent that hasn't been heard on her previous discs, combining her musical athleticism with genuine passion. This is one of my favourite albums, and I can't stop listening to it.
This is Lezhneva's fourth solo album – her third for Decca – which is not bad going for a twenty-eight year old singer, and very much a niche specialist at that. I disliked her last CD, called simply "Handel", both for its style and content, but it must have sold well as Decca have given the artist carte blanche for this new effort, a co-production with German Radio. She and her partner Mikhail Antonenko got excited by Carl Heinrich Graun's only famous aria "Mi paventi il figlio indegno" and went in search of other works by this Berlin composer of the 1740's. They came up with the eleven arias recorded here – plus "Mi paventi" – all claimed as premier recordings.
Lezhneva has said before now that Porpora's work fits her voice like a glove, and Porpora and Graun share much the same style. It's elaborately decorative, a vocal equivalent of baroque plaster or woodwork, and intensely difficult to sing. Lezhneva's great quality is the ease and fluency of her coloratura, so I think her instinct is right, and one has to admire the enthusiasm with which she and Antonenko have approached this project. But the couple are amateurs when it comes to musicology, and have become rather too enthusiastic about Graun. He strikes me as rather generic. Yes, there's that one famous aria, but then sopranos also went on singing "The soldier tir'd of war's alarms" right through the 19th century without anyone supposing Arne was an important composer. I heard only one other piece here which I thought worth attention – track 11 "A tanti pianti mei".
Nor do the performances suit me, I'm afraid, admirer of Lezhneva's gifts though I be. Antonenko directs, and he's a sensible musician, and he has a competent band of reasonable size in Concerto Koln (I guess about 20 of them, but we're not given details). But he and Lezhneva have been hanging out too long with the Cencic crowd and have got the idea that to perform baroque music you have to be too fast, accentuate heavily, and ignore the text (and use a twiddling lute to fill in any silences the composer might have intended).
The first two arias here are both expressions of anger, but in these performances they could just as easily be about joy, or fear. This is partly Graun's fault of course – I said he was generic – but it's also the performers; at their pace the text vanishes. Lezhneva gets round the notes, knowing that her audiences will applaud pure speed; but she can do better than this. To see how much better she might listen to Ann Hallenberg's version of "Mi paventi il figlio indegno" on her "Agrippina" album. Hallenberg sings it just a notch slower, spits out consonants – Lezhneva seems to have given up on consonants altogether – and gives her obbligato horns more room. Result: music – not great music, but fairly exciting music.
Lezhneva has an extraordinary gift but is clearly struggling to find an effective way to use it. She's been trying out opera roles in minor houses – and even at Covent Garden – but she lacks the histrionic talent that modern productions demand. Recitals are what she has, but it's hard to develop repertoire that way. So one understands a search for something new, but the answer to the question is clearly not Graun. I think the obvious answer is Handel – operatic Handel of the 1720's and 30's, real music for voices like Lezhneva's. I just hope she finds her way back there. But please: no more Graun.
The recording is like Lezhneva's Decca publicity photos: a bit too close to her and yet soft-filtered. Concerto Koln is a good band but have been put behind an audio curtain – except for that lute.