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.