Presto interview - Julia Lezhneva on Alleluia!

by Katherine Cooper. 8th May 2014

Regular readers of Presto's newsletters may know how much I love the exuberance and sincerity of Julia Lezhneva's performances, so it was a real pleasure to chat with her over email in advance of her Barbican appearance last night - and to see that these qualities come across just as clearly in her writing as they do in her singing!

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How did you choose the repertoire for this disc? The Mozart, of course, is very well-known, but where did you find the beautiful Porpora cantata?

It was actually quite a story with a choice of programme for this CD. First of all, me and Giovanni [Antonini] were thinking of a complete Mozart programme around his motet 'Exsultate, jubilate'. I've been studying and performing this wonderful music since early teenage and always wanted to record one day.

Whilst the time was going, and during our few meetings with Giovanni, we started to be both more and more interested in the genre of this 'Solo Motetto'. What did it mean? When and where was it popular, who else wrote in this genre? And we realised it has been truly very special and had its own history gaining its peak (if I may say) in the middle of 18th century in Italy when composers such as Handel, Porpora & Galuppi had been writing nearly hundreds of motets - mostly for singers of Ospedaletto in Venice. And we immediately thought of Vivaldi with his famous motet 'In furore' and that's how the idea of evolution of the genre came to us.

We thought it would be very interesting to choose some of the best examples and show how the 'Solo Motetto' developed stylistically from High Baroque towards early Mozart through the middle 18th century. And to find the link between Vivaldi/Handel & Mozart was particualrly difficult but exciting. Somehow me and my friend found that out of 70 Porpora's written motets, some 6 or 7 survived. And two of them we found in the British Library - they appeared to be also rather recently edited by James Sanderson.

When I received the the scores of these Motets - I was utterly shocked, because the first piece I saw - the Porpora's Motetto 'In caelo stelle clare' was so unusually beautifully written. Trills, scales, appoggiaturas were inserted in nearly every bar within the beautiful long legato lines through simultaneously - I immediately thought it was like written for my voice! And so touching music as well, as extremly virtuosic not only for the voice, but for the strings in the orchestra. So we were all so thrilled with this piece and so the idea was completed naturally and became rounded by 4 motets written in Italy during the 18th century by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora and Mozart each ending with one piece - 'Alleluia' !!

Your first disc (of Rossini arias, on Naive) mixed soprano and mezzo repertoire, but all the music 'Alleluia!' is very much soprano territory - what sort of changes has your voice undergone in the last couple of years, and do you identify as a soprano now?

I do not feel my voice changed very much. It surely gained more maturity and high register developed, but I am keeping the middle securely as well as low register and try to perform mostly central repertoire. The CD (except perhaps some slow movements of Handel and the more or less middle tessitura Porpora motet) appeared to possess truly rather high repertoire. But it does not mean I will be singing high roles in the future and concentrating fully on higher repertoire than I did before.

On the other hand, I never felt as a real mezzo-soprano - I have been always feeling I have a rather central soprano voice and it is probably that the high register was not matured when I was teenaged, and college teachers were advising I would rather become a mezzo-soprano. I am still at very tender age and surely there will be always little changes whilst the time goes.

Which particular singers have most inspired and influenced you in this repertoire (either in person or on record)?

I would not say there have been many influences before I recorded this disc. I have to say I am a bit reluctant to listening to recordings before recording some particular repertoire myself. I am always learning and enjoying nearly every day listening to excerpts from J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould or any music recorded live or studio by Grigory Sokolov I have on my iPhone - there are so much inspirations from those listening experiences! You always [find] something new and just meditating and melting in this music..And I still listen to Bach's Motets and some other Bach's sacred works every day - I am so happy to be living in a time where I have opportunity to hear this unearthly music!

So what's next for you, both in the long and the short-term? Can you tell us anything about your future recording plans, and what sort of roles would you like to be singing in, say, five or ten years' time?

I would love to do more Baroque and Classical music, as I am so deeply in love with it - it is part of my soul, it lives in my heart. Well, it is always difficult to plan so far ahead, and I totally enjoy the way it goes now: I have time to rest and time to think things over and just to enjoy daily life. In the long-term, I would love to keep the freshness of the voice, its youth and brightness. I think some Rossini central roles, such as Donna del Lago [Elena] or Mozart's Fiordiligi are ideal for me for future.

Nearby projects I have some Masses to perform - Schubert with Philippe Herreweghe and Petite messe solennelle with Ottavio Dantone. I am so much looking forward to be singing Masses and sacred works more, especially those by J.S. Bach! Finally, there will be two staged operas - a participation in the premiere of the opera Siroe by Hasse offered to me by the wonderful friend and colleague, Max Cencic. It will be staged in November this year in Versailles. And in summer next year I am going to make my debut at the Royal Opera House - I will be singing Zerlina in Don Giovanni. It's a great honour - the cast is a real dream and I am so much looking forward to this production!!

Alleluia - Available at a very special price until end of May 2014

'Alleluia', featuring solo motets by Vivaldi, Porpora, Handel and Mozart, was released last year on Decca Classics; Gramophone described it as showcasing 'a voice of bell-like purity, even throughout its compass, immaculately fluent in coloratura' and Lezhneva as 'a singer who rivals the young Bartoli in high-octane virtuosity.'

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