Cut-down ACO in top form

BAROQUE BRILLIANCE

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday October 15

lezhneva

                                                            Julia Lezhneva

It had nothing to do with the performance but I fell ill just before interval at this concert and went home, rather than risk disrupting my neighbours in the night’s second half; added to which, kidney-stones have a powerfully distracting effect on your concentration, no matter how ravishing a Handel aria’s execution.

Still, I stuck around long enough to hear soprano Julia Lezhneva sing Porpora’s In caelo stelle clare fulgescant motet and the Salve Regina antiphon setting by Handel.  This is a highly individual voice, light and buoyant with unexpected carrying power across its range, even in the lower registers.  Much of Lezhneva’s technical equipment is based around her rapid negotiation rate, which can be appreciated best in rapid scale passages, but what startled me – so much so that I wasn’t sure of what I was hearing – was a kind of one-note trill during the Porpora work.  It recalled the effect that you hear in sections of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, where one note is repeated in rapid, detached semiquaver action.  Lezhneva is adroit in handling the normal cadential trills but this not-quite-tremolo is strikingly unusual.

It first appeared when she reached the volent in fronde aves canendo phrase and immediately struck a response; what better way of simulating exactly that image?  Further on, the device is employed to just as brilliant an effect in the mecum gaudendo passage to suggest elated spirits.   But by this stage, Lezhneva had delighted with a richness of ornamentation and a splendid pliability of phrasing, almost caressing the line into shape. With a corps of about eleven strings only, Richard Tognetti and the ACO grounded proceedings with an accompaniment of exemplary subtlety.

Just as arresting as her decorative work, the soprano made a brilliant impression with her brisk and flawlessly accurate account of the motet’s concluding Alleluia, handled with bravado but sensibly so that the long chains of scale passages came across with clarity and balance – not the scramble that some Baroque interpreters give to such flights of vocal velocity.  The only fault you could pick with the whole account came in a high A (at least I think it was: Tognetti had brought his tuning down to 415) that for some reason came out as half-hearted, although it was awkwardly positioned – not cadential but not able to be thrown away as part of a roulade.

In the Handel piece, Lezhneva enjoyed even more success, probably because the combination of sentiment and fireworks is much more dramatically shaped.  The slow wide-ranging sentences of the opening, where the children of Eve emphasize their depressed state, enjoyed excellent exposition, notably at the point where the music becomes monosyllabic as the suspiramus setting brought out the dramatist in Handel and the actress in Lezhneva.

Despite the warm pianissimo ending, carefully negotiated by the soprano and her sparse string accompaniment, the Murdoch Hall audience relished the middle section’s rapid-fire jollity, particularly those sections where organist Erin Helyard and Lezhneva imitated and duetted in a setting where buoyancy and an old-fashioned desire for contrast resulted in an emotional musical language at odds with the text – well, actually riding roughshod over the images of the Virgin’s merciful eyes in favour of a vision of Jesus the fruit of her womb who for Handel was obviously a baby with a bent for the happier side of infant life.

But it satisfied both as a contrast and complement to the Porpora work, exhibiting both composers’ approaches to happiness and veneration, the interpretations equally satisfying although, as you’d expect, the merits of the Handel left the greater impression because of the felicitous flow of the master’s melodic genius.   But then, Handel had the advantage of setting a straightforward and well-known text with a limited emotional framework, so much so that he used it as a blank canvas, while Porpora was determined to relish the sidereal and bucolic riches of his text with galant flamboyance.

Just as enjoyable as Lezhneva’s contributions was the ACO’s account of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C with two oboes – Benoit Laurent and Ludovic Achour  – and bassoon Jane Gower fleshing out the strings,  as well as Helyard ‘s harpsichord and Axel Wolf’s theorbo. Tognetti directed a taut reading of this relative rarity – well, rare when compared to its B minor companion for flute and strings: a concert-hall regular  –  which was cleverly organised so that the wind trio weren’t called upon to play continuous doublings.  As with most of Tognetti’s re-examinations, this made an object lesson in shading, most obvious in the long-winded Ouverture where the continuo’s cutting undercarriage gave the violins a vital balance.

Each of the following dances spoke with distinct character: the slightly off-centre Courante, that odd Forlane melding the rustic with the courtly, an improbably fast rendition of the Bourees.    But the final Passepieds proved to be a touchingly gentle set of pages, investing the whole performance with a tolerant humanity, the composer’s three levels of activity fusing into a simple but elevating farewell.  This suite represents for me the sort of playing that the ACO accomplishes without peer in this country, and with precious little competition from what I’ve heard elsewhere.