Julia Lezhneva Carl Heinrich Graun Opera AriasJulia Lezhneva – Carl Heinrich Graun

Opera Arias

Concerto Köln

Mikhail Antonenko, conductor

Decca, 2017

Differently from the interminable list of musician born in the bosom of the Bach dynasty in just one century, music history counts only three exponents of the Graun family. These were three brothers – August Friedrich, Johann Gottlieb and Carl Heinrich – so that it can be said that the musical talent of the Grauns exhausted itself in just one generation, but at least two of the aforementioned musicians were highly regarded by their contemporaries.

August Friedrich Graun was an organist and teacher of whom probably not a single work survives, if the Kyrie and Gloria attributed to him are really spurious as they are supposed to be, Johann Gottlieb made a career for himself at the service of the Prince of Waldeck before and of the future King of Prussia Frederick the Great later on, becoming Konzertmeister of the newly founded Prussian court Kapelle and being particularly admired for his instrumental music, but it is Carl Heinrich, the youngest offspring of the Graun family, that became its most notable member.

Carl Heinrich Graun was born in 1703 or 1704 and began his career as a singer at the Dresden court (his presence is documented at the premiere of Lotti’s Teofane in 1719), where he is also supposed to have written two entire cycles of sacred cantatas that now are lost. Later, he was employed at the service of the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel with the duty to compose church, court and operatic music and became vice-Kapellmeister in 1731. At that point, he went to the court of the Crown Prince Frederick as his brother because he did not see any chance to advance his career at the Duke’s court. Graun’s fortune was definitely assured when Frederick became King and made him Kapellmeister at a salary of two hundred thalers.

In this period, Graun composed successful operas, cantatas, concertos and chamber music, but his influence was not destined to last long. Even during his lifetime, new styles and tendencies were already developing in German cities as Mannheim (its school had a great ascendency even on the young Mozart) and the Italian tradition was soon to replace his own for what concerns the opera. In his latest years and until the 19th century, Graun’s fame was linked only to two sacred works and to Tod Jesu in particular.

The abandoning of Graun’s old tradition is probably the reason why this composer is now so neglected that it was necessary – as usual – that a first-rate singer fell in love with his music before the audience could listen to it again. This is what happened to Julia Lezhneva when she found the aria Mi paventi il figlio indegno from Britannico while preparing for a concert at the Sans souci palace in Potsdam. In a comment that you find the booklet notes, the soprano remarks that, «unlike Handel or Porpora, where you can feel that castrati were still reigning supreme in opera and dominating the concert stage, it seems that Graun had a deep love of the natural female voice and tried to make women equal to the castrati, creating lots of roles for them with as much emotional and dramatic range as possible».

This discover induces Lezhneva to look for more arias written by the German composer and the fruit of this research is included in the album Opera Arias she recorded with the Concerto Köln conducted by Mikhail Antonenko. All the arias, taken from some of Graun’s major operas as L’Orfeo, Silla and L’Armida are world premiere recording with the exception of the last aria, the already mentioned Mi paventi il figlio indegno. There is also a symphonic “intermezzo”, the Sinfonia from Rodelinda, in the middle of the album.

The pieces, connoted by an extremely virtuosic character that immediately reveals Lezheva’s formidable technique, range between a huge variety of feelings and situations as sorrow (Sento una pena, Senza di te, mio bene), heroism (Sforzerò l’avverso mare), revenge (Mi paventi il figlio indegno) and, why not, triumphant glory (La gloria t’invita).

Unfortunately, Opera Arias is not as gorgeous as it might be expected. Julia Lezhneva’s strong point is an undaunted coloratura and agility but, despite these (absolutely not negligible) qualities, there are other aspects of her singing that are not equally fine, although some of them may be caused by the frenzied tempi of the conduction. To this I attribute at least some high note that, instead of being “caressed”, are rather hasty, breaking the continuity of the vocal line. Lezhneva’s low register is a little weak and here she is not as accurate as in the upper registers, but the worst flaw is her almost incomprehensible pronunciation of the Italian language. Even if words are not the most important aspect of a coloratura aria, their prolonged, unintelligible pronunciation damages – at least in part – the overall outcome.

Lezhneva’s best quality is connected with her sound technique and it is that, despite the conduction makes almost impossible for a singer to perform Graun’s arias without taking her breath away, she sings without showing any particular difficulty apart those mentioned before and that are only momentary. This is not a small merit as Mikhail Antonenko’s conduction is awful. I dare to say that this is the true limit of Opera Arias. First of all, as I have just wrote, he conducts leaving little chance for the singer to breath and this is not only uncomfortable for her but creates exaggeratedly fast tempi. I do not know if it is for this reason or for a technical problem during the recording sessions that you do not hear sound but noise when you listen to this album, but in the best case this is a shared fault. When the Concerto Köln plays, it seems to perform an eternal “tempest”, if you allow me to make a comparison with one of the favourite compositions of the time when this music was written, and moreover a stormy, windy tempest of which there is little to understand and much more to fear. Leaving aside this comparison, the fact remains that Graun’s opera arias are really difficult to enjoy when they are played in this way.

In the end, Graun’s Opera Arias let me down. My hope is that Lezhneva will sing these arias again with a better companion on the platform as, despite some flaws, she has proved here to have the right features to return Graun’s music to its old splendour. Any definitive judgement about her performing this composer is therefore postponed until then.