United Kingdom Handel, Geminiani: Julia Lezhneva (soprano), Il Giardino Armonico, Giovanni Anotonini (violin/director). Barbican Hall, London, 7.5.2014 (CC)
Handel: Sinfonia from Agrippina
‘Pugneran con noi le stelle’ from Rodrigo
‘Carmelitarum…O nox dulcis’ – Recitativo & Aria from Saeviat tellus
Concerto grosso in G minor Op 6 No 6
Geminiani: Concerto Grosso in D minor No 6, La Follia
Handel: ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’ from Agrippina
‘Un pensiero nemico di pace’
Concerto grosso in D major Op 6 No 5
‘Come nembo che fugge col vento’ from Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno
The meeting of 24 year-old Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva and the period instrument ensemble Il Giardino Armonico is clearly a most successful one. With several successful discs already behind her, Lezhneva has turned her attention to the works of Handel. The Overture to Agrippina (1709) a typically French-Baroque affair, revealed the ensemble as producing a sound larger and more palpable than the number on stage might imply. The main body of the overture, an allegro, fizzed with energy, but more impressive than this was the dramatic use of silence. In a sense this was more than an overture into the evening, more of a reminder of the essence of Handel himself.
It is a fair bet that most had come for Lezhneva, however. The first aria (from Rodrigo of 1707) is replete with vocal fireworks, as the character Florinda demands marriage to the Rodrigo of the title. Fanfare-like vocal gestures met a dexterity that, experienced live, creates terrific frisson. Moving to a 1707 motet, Saevat tellus inter rigores, composed for the Roman Carmelite church of Santa Maria di Monte Santo. Lezhneva’s diction was perfect, but it was the aria itself that impressed, its nocturnal text (“O nox dulcis”; O gentle night) reflected in Handel’s exquisite writing. Almost as noteworthy as Lezhneva’s vocal excellence was the terrific hush of the strings (which could have been notated as pppp) – almost inaudible, yet perfectly controlled.
It was a nice idea to use concerti grossi from Handel’s famous Op. 6 set to break up the vocal items and give Lezhneva a rest. The variety of expression in this performance was actually huge. Shockingly short staccati, highlighted dissonances and a sure harmonic awareness all contributed to an account that underlined the modernity of Handel’s writing. The piece ends with two contrasted Allegros, the first fiery, the second bouncing along with wonderfully skipping oboes. It was far more than an interlude.
The quadripartite Marian antiphon Salve Regina (1707) provides huge challenges for the singer, perhaps mainly in terms of length of melodic line and in the large leaps it employs. Lezhneva not only negotiated the hurdles with ease, but projected a proper sense of the sacred text.
The insertion of some Geminiani immediately post-interval was most welcome. In the piece on offer here, Geminiani reworks “La follia” by his teacher, Corelli. The concertante group comprises two violins, viola and cello, increasing the textural palette. The concertante writing is indeed gorgeous; but it was the control of dynamic terrassing that really caught the ear. Antonini’s solo contributions were perfectly realised.
The next two Handel arias upped the emotional temperature considerably. The excerpt from Agrippina, a scena which finds the anti-heroine musing on her scheme to put her son Nero on the throne, is highly dramatic. Lezhneva’s breath control was simply remarkable, while her trills were true vocal trills, as accurate as if on a keyboard. This scena includes a delicious obbligato oboe part, superbly despatched by Emiliano Rodolfi, while in the first excerpt from Il Trionfo it revealed perfect unanimity at speed between voice and violins It was separated from the second excerpt from this piece by the Op. 6/5 Concerto grosso, the highlight of which was the emotionally laden Largo.
Finally, the second Trionfo excerpt, “Come nembo che fugge col vento”, Pleasure’s final solo of that oratorio. Busy and rapid-fire, it was the perfect way to end. There were two encores: “Lascia la spina” and an Alleluia. A fairly late finish time (10pm) came as a surprise: the time had sped past. Lezhneva’s star remains firmly in the ascendant.