There are two ways of looking at the 18th-century solo motet. One is as a vehicle for expression of religious thought (and a cheap means to fill out your service if you were on a budget). The other is a way of slipping a virtuoso operatic showpiece or two into a sacred service – indeed, if you were Handel, Vivaldi or Porpora, this form of recycling was common practice. For her solo Decca debut recording, the Russian coloratura Julia Lezhneva has opted to explore this fruitful musical genre with motets from four of the most distinctive composers of the Baroque and Classical periods. Neatly, each motet ends with an Alleluia movement, giving the disc its title.
Still only 23, Lezhneva is possessed of an exceptionally pure instrument. The danger with a “clean” voice like hers is the risk of a certain sameness over the course of an hour’s solo program, but do not despair: this young soprano has two tricks up her sleeve. Recognising the operatic dimension within these works, she hurls herself into the opening of Vivaldi’s In Furore with more bite even than Sandrine Piau on the rival Naïve recording (which is saying something!). Her technique is rock solid, her coloratura dazzling in its speed and pinpoint accuracy.
The second weapon at Lezhneva’s disposal is the excellent Il Giardino Armonico under Giovanni Antonini, who go at this vibrant music hammer and tongs. Exciting stuff indeed and most effectively contrasted with the rapt, slower arias in which Lezhneva is able to play her trump card: a smooth, silvery tone like extruded moonbeams. Alongside the thrilling Vivaldi we have an equally attractive performance of Handel’s tuneful and rarely recorded Saeviat Tellus Inter Rigores, which contains the ravishing air O Nox Dulcis. The work is a prime example of operatic borrowing – the Saxon magpie plundered the motet at a later date for both Rodrigo and Rinaldo.
For her third pick, Lezhneva has unearthed a fascinating novelty by Nicola Porpora, Handel’s great operatic rival in London. Like many of his sacred works, Porpora’s In Caelo Stelle Clare was composed for one of those Venetian hospitals that cared for young orphans, and exhibits his typically sensitive writing for the female voice. The recital is topped off with a winning traversal of Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate and the Decca recording is state-of-the-art.