27 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Carl Heinrich Graun — OPERA ARIAS (Julia Lezhneva, soprano; DECCA 483 1518)

IN REVIEW: Carl Heinrich Graun - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 483 1518)CARL HEINRICH GRAUN (1703 or 1704 – 1759): Opera AriasJulia Lezhneva, soprano; Concerto Köln; Mikhail Antonenko, conductor [Recorded in Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln, Germany, 17 – 18, 26 – 27, and 29 – 30 September 2016; DECCA 483 1518; 1 CD, 65:12; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), iTunes, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In the summer of 1966, an ensemble of singers including Lauris Elms, Monica Sinclair, and Dame Joan Sutherland gathered alongside the Ambrosian Singers and London Philharmonic Orchestra in London’s Kingsway Hall to record excerpts from a pair of operas that by the middle of the Twentieth Century had been dormant for more than two hundred years. The subject of the first of these curiosities, a storied paragon of patience and virtue immortalized in literature by Giovanni Boccaccio, was one of the most popular operatic heroines of the Eighteenth Century, an inspiration to Antonio Maria Bononcini, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi. Rather than the work of any of these acknowledged masters, it was Giovanni Battista Bononcini’s 1733 London opera Griselda that Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge resurrected for the studio microphones. Griselda’s unlikely companion in the eventual DECCA compact disc reissue was another of Baroque opera’s most widely-traveled characters, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, the ruler of the Aztec empire at the time of Spanish conquest. Like Griselda, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin was given an operatic outing of excellent quality by Vivaldi, but it was to a setting of the Aztec emperor’s encounter with Hernán Cortés by Carl Heinrich Graun that Bonynge turned his attention. First performed at Berlin’s Hofoper in 1755, Graun’s Montezuma was distinguished by a libretto adapted from Voltaire’s Alzire, ou Les Américains by Friedrich der Große, the music-loving King of Prussia at whose court the composer served as Kapellmeister for nearly two decades. A half-century after Sutherland and Bonynge devoted their considerable powers to exposing the beauties of Graun’s Montezuma, a DECCA release is again the vehicle for a riveting rediscovery of wonderful music by this still-neglected composer. Backed by acclaimed period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln, young Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva lends her pellucid timbre and quicksilver technique to performances of eleven arias from seven of Graun’s operas, not one of which has been revived in modern times. A fascinating journey through music that deserves to be heard, this disc creates a compelling portrait of Graun as both composer and dramatist. Likewise, it introduces Julia Lezhneva as not only a superb vocalist, in which rôle she has earned plaudits throughout the world, but also as a surefooted musical spelunker, able and willing to descend into the cavernous recesses of archives and libraries in search of scores awaiting a modern interpreter to reawaken them.

The presence of a question mark after the date of a composer’s birth often indicates a lack of reliable information about the education and experience that contributed to his mature artistry. Carl Heinrich Graun was born in Wahrenbrück in Brandenburg; whether in 1701, 1703, or 1704—the years put forth as contenders by most sources—has not yet been definitively established. The young Graun and his brother are documented as having been members of the famous Dresdner Kreuzchor, and Graun’s musical studies were likely divided between voice and composition. In the years prior to his engagement as Kapellmeister at the court of Friedrich der Große, Graun was a respected chorister, tenor soloist, and composer in theatres in Dresden, Braunschweig, and Rheinsberg. It was in the last of these cities that he likely made the acquaintance of his future royal employer, having been commissioned to write an opera in celebration of then Crown Prince Friedrich’s 1733 nuptials. Despite Friedrich’s obvious fondness for his work, which some evidence suggests was secondary in the king’s affection to his singing, Graun’s music was seemingly quickly forgotten after the composer’s death in Berlin in 1759. Like his near contemporary Johann Adolf Hasse, Graun’s works were not unknown to fellow artists and connoisseurs like Mozart and his staunch supporter in Imperial Vienna, Baron van Swieten, but only the 1755 Passion cantata Der Tod Jesu and a few instrumental pieces preserved Graun’s name from complete oblivion until the Twentieth Century’s revival of interest in Montezuma, Cesare e Cleopatra, and other of the composer’s works.

Concerto Köln’s acquaintance with Graun’s operatic style extends back more than two decades. In 1995, following a production first heard at the Festival Baroque de Versailles in 1992 and later staged at Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, the orchestra and a fine cast conducted by René Jacobs recorded a sterling account of Graun’s 1742 opera Cesare e Cleopatra, the work commissioned by Friedrich der Große two-and-a-half centuries earlier to inaugurate Berlin’s newly-built Königliches Opernhaus. Here sharing concertmaster duties under the direction of conductor Mikhail Antonenko, Dmitry Sinkovsky and Emilio Percan lead today’s Concerto Köln in pursuing the same goals of historically-informed and emotionally-engaged playing that have been hallmarks of the ensemble’s performance since the group’s formation in 1985. Guided by the emotional contexts of the music, the tempi enacted on this disc are consistently intelligent, those for extroverted utterances excitingly challenging and those for contemplative passages beguilingly lilting. The stylish, imaginative playing of lutenist Luca Pianca further enhances the appeal of the disc’s instrumental substratum. The orchestra’s performance of the Sinfonia from Graun’s opera Rodelinda, regina de’ Langobardi, a subject familiar from Händel’s 1725 setting of a revision of the Antonio Salvi libretto that inspired both Giacomo Antonio Perti in 1710 and Graun in 1741 [in fact, Graun employed an adaptation by Giovanni Gualberto Bottarelli of the revision of Salvi’s libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym set by Händel], is an ideal example of the aesthetic that Concerto Köln’s playing on this disc exemplifies: sounding wholly appropriate for music composed in the first half of the Eighteenth Century to the extent that practices of that era are now understood, the orchestral textures are full-bodied, fully convincing backdrops for the emotional tableaux of the arias.

Unlike Gluck’s and Bertoni’s later operatic treatments of the Orpheus myth, Graun’s 1752 opera L’Orfeo included a dramatis personæ expanded beyond the lyre-wielding hero, his ill-fated bride, and an amorous deity. The aria ‘Sento una pena’ is sung by Aspasia, the Thracian queen who vies with Euridice for Orfeo’s love, and Lezhneva responds to the aria’s despondent sentiments with vocalism of unnerving immediacy, the forward placement of vowels enabling her to darken the sound to suit the text without distorting or dulling her naturally gleaming timbre. Frightened by the potential consequences of Aspasia’s jealousy, Euridice incites Orfeo to flee with her in ‘Il mar s’inalza e freme,’ a virtuosic simile aria comparable in quality to the best of Vivaldi’s writing in this vein. The ease with which Lezhneva meets the music’s bravura demands is flabbergasting, but there is content in her coloratura. The soprano’s vocal fireworks are dizzyingly impressive, but she does not allow the listener to ignore the dramatic events that light the fuses of Graun’s rockets of notes. A touching lament for the fallen Euridice sung by Orfeo’s brother Aristeo, ‘D’ogni aura al mormorar’ receives from Lezhneva a traversal of limpid melancholy, the gravity of the words intensified by the deftness with which the singer extends the line.

Most familiar to modern listeners in her later Gluckian guise, Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra—or, according to some writers, of Theseus and Helen—and sister of Orestes and Electra, is another figure who was popular with composers throughout the Eighteenth Century. Graun contended with the unfortunate girl’s plight in his 1748 opera Ifigenia in Aulide. Lezhneva offers an aria for Ifigenia’s father, the Greek king Agamemnone, ‘Sforzerò l’avverso mare.’ Her singing here exudes the much-tested monarch’s authority, as well as the psychological toll of his tribulation. The soprano is often at her best when dispatching fiorature at breakneck velocity, but in this music she makes an equally cogent impression with her handling of rests and verbal cadences. Her Italian diction is not that of a native speaked but is generally accurate without being exaggerated. Dating from 1749, Volunnia’s aria ‘Senza di te, mio bene’ from Coriolano is sufficient to establish Graun’s reputation as a significant composer of opera, and Lezhneva finds in its expressive phrases a splendid outlet for her musical and dramatic sensibilities, her account of the aria glistening with ornaments that complement her nuanced handling of the text.

Perhaps the most frequently-mined lode of operatic source material during the Eighteenth Century was Torquato Tasso’s 1581 epic Gerusalemme liberata. Even before Händel composed Rinaldo, the first Italian opera written exclusively for the London stage, in 1711, Tasso’s Armida had already served as the heroine of a tragédie en musique by Lully, and she would go on to collect operatic homages from Haydn, Rossini, and Dvořák. In 1751, Graun’s Armida brought the pagan sorceress and her romantic tangle with the Christian knight Rinaldo to Friedrich der Große’s Hofoper. Lezhneva first sings the knight Ubaldo’s entreaty to Rinaldo to seek glory in righteous conflict rather than pleasure in the company of Armida, ‘La gloria t’invita.’ This spirited exhortation makes formidable technical demands, but the soprano’s negotiations of the difficult passagework and carefully-managed breath control conquer the aria’s pitfalls. Of a vastly different but no less daunting nature is Armida’s aria ‘A tanti pianti miei,’ in her singing of which Lezhneva, persuasively impersonating the legendary enchantress, invokes her own dazzling musical wizardry, casting an unbreakable spell with her scintillating upper register.

The eponymous protagonist of Graun’s 1750 opera Il Mithridate is familiar as the hero of the fourteen-year-old Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto, but the aria selected for inclusion on this disc, ‘Piangete, o mesti lumi,’ belongs to Rosmiri, a character not present in Mozart’s opera. The evenness of Lezhneva’s singing throughout the range of the music highlights the faculty with which Graun wrote for voices, whether those of castrati or female singers. The potency of the soprano’s limning of Rosmiri’s despair is touching, all the more so for her vocalism being cleanly articulated. With a libretto in which his royal patron had a hand, Graun’s Silla from 1753 visited territory covered in Händel’s little-remembered Lucio Cornelio Silla, as well as in the young Mozart’s Lucio Silla. Ottavia’s vehement recitative ‘Parmi...ah no!’ and aria ‘Venga pure, e ardita, e forte’ are performed by Lezhneva and Concerto Köln with histrionic fire that ignites the intricacies of the composer’s part writing. The incisiveness of the singer’s phrasing of Postumio’s aria ‘No, no, di Libia fra l’arene’ spurs appreciation of Graun’s great talent for musical storytelling. Lezhneva’s discovery of Agrippina’s aria ‘Mi paventi il figlio indegno’ from Graun’s 1751 opera Britannico is cited in George Loomis’s concisely informative liner notes as the catalyst for the soprano’s interest in the composer’s music and the impetus for this recording project. As she sings the aria here, Graun could hope for no more eloquent, committed, and purely beautiful a starting point for the modern listener eager to explore his music.

Even when recorded with the technological finesse achieved in the engineering of this disc, voices can be difficult to analyze and assess in the context of studio recordings. Julia Lezhneva’s illustrious predecessor in the DECCA Graun discography is a perfect case study. Among Dame Joan Sutherland’s many recordings for the label, almost all of which are worthwhile documents of the continuous development of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest voices, her recording of Puccini’s Turandot comes nearest to faithfully capturing the remarkable amplitude and sheer aural impact of Sutherland’s instrument in the opera house. In terms of tonal heft, Lezhneva is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sutherland, but her voice, too, tests recording technicians’ skills. Tending to sound brittle and monochromatic if recorded in unsympathetic acoustics, Lezhneva’s voice is an instrument of innumerable shadows and overtones, the bright sheen of the timbre extending from a gossamer mezza voce to clarion tintinnabulation that projects with power surprising for a voice of modest dimensions. In the performances on this disc, Lezhneva’s voice is placed in an aural space in which her tones have ample resonance, possessing just enough of a metallic edge to oblige the listener to devote as much attention to the musical and dramatic details of Graun’s arias as the singer has done. With this welcome disc, Lezhneva absorbingly refines her artistry and adds Graun’s voice to the growing conversation about the important operatic innovators of the first half of the Eighteenth Century.