“Concertos for voice” is how one musicologist described Vivaldi’s many solo motets — an apt term for works by a composer best known for his concertos. But solo motets by Vivaldi and other eighteenth-century composers can also be thought of as virtuoso arias with sacred rather than operatic texts. Solo motets were enormously popular in Italy, and composers were only too ready to satisfy the demand. The motets served a variety of needs, some having texts designed for specific occasions, others embracing a generality that facilitated widespread use.
During his early twenties, when he gained important experience in Italy, Handel recognised the appeal of the solo motet and also knew that its arias, their Latin texts aside, were scarcely distinguishable from opera arias. He recycled the opening aria of Saeviat tellus in the operas Rodrigo and Rinaldo, where its martial character found a welcome home. The motet’s text befits the musically ambitious occasion for which it was written, a celebration of the Carmelite Order held in Rome on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in 1707, at which other works by Handel were also performed. While the motet’s first aria hails the defiance of the Carmelites against the threats of Hades, the second aria, which has the alluring repose of an operatic sleep scene by Handel, beguilingly commemorates the night when an appearance by the Virgin Mary ‘inspired the establishment of the Order. As with the other motets heard here, the arias in Saeviat tellus have the same formal structure as contemporaneous opera, arias, in Handel’s case the da capo aria.
Saeviat tellus is one of four solo motets the Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva has selected for her first Decca disc. “It is a brilliant piece, a real concerto per voce, and ‘concerto’ initially meant ‘competition’: she says. “Because of its extraordinary range of moods, the piece in a way finds itself between Earth and the Heavens, finally ending with a light-hearted Alleluia’. Vocally it makes much use of the upper register, including a written high D in the first aria.”
Inspiration for the disc came initially from another motet, Mozart’s famous Exsultate, jubilate, which Paul Moseley of Decca Classics heard Lezhneva sing in concert and encouraged her to record. She decided on a disc embodying a chronological tour of the eighteenth-century Italian solo motet, with the Mozart as the final stop. Focusing on motets offered another advantage for the young soprano: “I liked the idea of waiting to record opera arias until I had more experience with them on stage” Given that she is only twenty-three, there will surely be plenty of time for that. Having performed and recorded Vivaldi’s opera Ottone in villa with Giovanni Antonini and II Giardino Armonico, she immediately looked to them to collaborate with her on the new disc.
Mozart’s famous motet, a product of the second of his trips to Italy, was written for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, who created the role of Cecilio in Mozart’s opera seria Lucio Silla; the motet was first performed in Milan in January 1773, shortly before Mozart’s seventeenth birthday. The opening movement is like the A section of an expansive dal segno aria from that opera, with multiple themes and coloratura coming at the expected place in the form. The second movement is similar formally, but in mood it is akin to an opera aria expressing tender sentiment. The final movement, like those of the disc’s other motets, is a joyous
For material to go with the Mozart, Lezhneva looked to the beginning of the eighteenth century. Having selected Handel, she turned to an obvious personal choice: Vivaldi. When asked what kindled her interest in Baroque music, she has a ready answer: Cecilia Bartoli’s 1999 Vivaldi disc, which she discovered when she was eleven or twelve. “I completely fell in love with it. I had never heard such virtuosity and vocal freedom before. It was a shock for me” John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of Hercules supplied her introduction to Handel. “Baroque music captured my soul and I dived into it, listening every day to recordings of music by Bach, Handel and other composers”
Vivaldi’s In furore iustissimae irae, written in Rome during one of the composer’s visits to that city in the 1720s, begins in stormy C minor, and Lezhneva sees in it a tragic tone. The other motets are joyful”, she says, but this one is “full of drama and demands extraordinary strength and power. The Handel motet has trumpet-style writing for the voice, but here, in the first aria, the voice imitates a mad violin” —Vivaldi’s way of illustrating the text’s reference to the Lord’s “righteous ire”. Indeed, the first aria generates considerable musical turbulence through assertive semiquaver runs and pulsating quavers.
The music of the second movement takes its cue not from the new-found joy the singer refers to, but from the calmness that joy brings. A lulling 3/8 metre creates a mood of utter serenity, disturbed only by fleeting chromatic inflections. “It is like a duetto, with the voice merging with the orchestra in one flow” Joy is deferred until the final “Alleluia” but the return to the minor adds, in Lezhneva’s view, a prayerful dimension to the spirited coloratura. Pinpoint coloratura is not usually thought of as part of a Russian singer’s arsenal, but Lezhneva says it came naturally to her and was not the product of rigorous training.
With the Classical period duly represented by Mozart and the Baroque by Handel and Vivaldi, Lezhneva sought out a composer in the middle chronologically to round out the disc. After considering figures like Jommelli, Galuppi and Paisiello, she turned to Nicola Porpora, a major figure in Neapolitan opera and a leading exponent of the galant style, which extolled melody and minimised Baroque complexities. According to Porpora scholar James Sanderson, the virtuosic motet in caelo stelle clare was one of four solo motets written in 1744-45 for singers at Venice’s Ospedaletto and was dedicated to the soprano Graziola.
The motet’s opening aria splendidly illustrates Porpora’s fluent yet crisp melodic style, with its graceful ornamentation and easy flow from one melodic idea to another. “Porpora’s vocal lines are completely natural and very comfortable for my voice, even though they are written in an instrumental way”, says Lezhneva. She finds the second aria, notable for “phrases that seem almost endless and trills written into the vocal line”, to be especially inspired, adding that she has always liked to sing trills. “Porpora’s music fits my voice like Chopin fits a pianist’s hands. Its joy is phenomenal — it’s a tonic to sing this music.”