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GRAMOPHONE (07/2017)
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Decca 4831518

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Reviewer: Mark Pullinger

The name Carl Heinrich Graun won’t be familiar to many opera-goers – or indeed many singers. He was Kapellmeister to Frederick the Great, writing in full opera seria style à la Handel. Soprano Julia Lezhneva came across an aria from Graun’s Britannico at Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace. ‘I felt myself trembling when I sang it’, she comments in the booklet note to her latest disc, a Graun extravaganza where every number apart from Britannico’s ‘Mi paventi’ receives its premiere recording.

It seems that Graun was much enamoured of the soprano voice at a time when, for Handel and Porpora at least, the castrato still reigned supreme. I’m not sure Graun would have been totally enamoured with Lezhneva’s performances though. Most of the arias are highly virtuoso – and there’s no denying Lezhneva’s got a precision-drilled technique to tackle the highly florid coloratura – but some of her artistic decisions are questionable.

In operas on familiar themes from mythology or Roman history – Rinaldo, Armida, Orfeo (three arias), Ifigenia in Aulide, Lucio Silla – there’s a fair amount of lamenting and furioso raging going on…and in trying to inject plenty of drama, Lezhneva sometimes scoops and slides in terribly ungainly fashion. Just try listening to the disc’s opening track, Aspasia’s aria ‘Sento una pena’ from L’Orfeo; all the pyrotechnics are there, but the extravagant swell on the word ‘rancore’ is horribly mannered and unmusical. While there’s much to admire in Lezhneva’s remarkable agility, her soprano can be pallid and pinched. She’s at her best in Aristeo’s moving ‘D’ogni aura al mormorar’ from L’Orfeo.

Graun certainly gave his sopranos a good workout, but the effect of the 11 arias makes for an exhausting listen. The fiery sinfonia from Rodelinda offers an all too brief respite, the playing of Concerto Köln bristling with excitement and plenty of heavy lute-strumming. I’d welcome a recording of a complete opera by Graun but there are times when this operatic recital is simply too much.


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