Julia Lezhneva, just turned twenty-five when this recording was made, explores the considerable and precocious body of work composed by the even younger Handel during his sojourn in Italy (between 1706 and 1710) in which he really honed the compositional voice with which he spoke for the rest of his life. The selection draws upon the different Italianate vocal genres with which the German composer experimented and excelled – opera, oratorio, cantata, and church music.
To a considerable degree it is as a recital that this disc comes across, rather than a series of dramatic scenes extracted from a wider narrative, as Lezhneva does not go far to delineate the emotional character of the individual numbers. However, she brings a similar clarity and seamlessness of expression to each aria, which works superbly in those items of dignified calm or rapt stillness such as ‘Per dar pregio all’amor mio’ from Rodrigo or ‘Lascia la spina’ from Il Trionfo (famously later used as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo).
A mood of spiritual pallor pervades the Salve Regina setting (sung complete), but there could be more of a yearning intensity in this prayer to the Virgin, and also a keener sense of Agrippina’s mental torments in the remarkable soliloquy from that opera (though the chromatic melismas there do come close to sounding like a wail). Pieces such as ‘Ad te clamamus’ from the Salve Regina, and ‘Tu del Ciel ministro eletto’ from Il Trionfo, are rightly reflective and transcendent, but here lack tension by being too slow and leisurely.
In faster music Lezhneva’s singing is virtually impeccable (except for some occasional squally runs), but often a sense of urgency is missing, not helped by the slightly distant position from which the recording seems to capture her, undermining a sense of triumph in the jubilant ‘Disserratevi, o porte d’Averno’ of La Resurrezione, for example. One would never guess that, in contrast, the similar ebullience of ‘Come nembo’ from Il Trionfo (which Handel drew upon twenty years later for ‘Vivi tiranno’ in Rodelinda) expresses not victory, but the retreat of Pleasure in that allegorical work.
Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico provide tasteful support throughout, and particular highlights are the way in which Dmitry Sinkovksy takes his cue from Lezhneva by also embellishing the violin line in the da capo for ‘Lascia la spina’, and the poised accompaniment from oboe and pizzicato strings for the lilting aria ‘Felicissima quest’alma’ from the cantata Apollo e Dafne.
In many ways, then, this is a technically accomplished release, offering riches aplenty for the listener. But Handel’s true genius as one of the great communicators of human emotion in music is rather latent here. The booklet includes the original texts as well as translations into English, French and German.