Over the years, the protean ensemble that is the Australian Chamber Orchestra has explored almost every kind of music: their Timeline project alone was a sampler of musical styles across thousands of years. Given the small size and string-focus of the core ensemble, the Baroque has often been a happy hunting ground for them. However, I struggle to recall a concert in which the music was exclusively drawn from the first half of the 18th century. Previously, the ACO has interleaved Baroque and 20th-century works (as was the case in the concert featuring countertenor Andreas Scholl), or included a few choice early 18th-century instrumental movements alongside a range of other material (as in the live musical score for The Reef).

Julia Lezhneva © Uli Weber | Decca
Julia Lezhneva
© Uli Weber | Decca

The impetus for such unblinking concentration this time was the partnership with Julia Lezhneva, a young soprano specialising in 18th-century repertoire (the main outliers in her discography feature the music of Rossini). The orchestra responded to the assignment by accommodating to some of norms of period ensembles: the tuning was down a semitone to 415 Hz, gut strings were in use, vibrato was restrained, and a few players opted for Baroque bows. The guest woodwind players also played on period instruments or copies thereof.

Lezhneva launched the concert with In caelo stelle by the now forgotten Nicola Antonio Porpora, whose main claim to fame today probably rests on his having taught Haydn. The Russian is an advocate of this four-movement motet, and it proved to be a good vehicle to acquaint us with her voice and artistry. As befits a concert advertised with the strap-line “Baroque Brillliance”, her passage work was highly impressive: the final Alleluia in particular comprised string after string of exquisitely matched pearls. The dramatic recitative in the second movement allowed us to hear her surprisingly rich tone, which had something almost mezzo-ish to it (at least in comparison with other exponents of this repertoire like Emma Kirkby).

For the performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 1 in C major the woodwinds filled in the centre space vacated by the soprano, and this trio functioned at times like the concertino section of a concerto grosso in contrast to the main body of the orchestra (for instance, they alone played Bouree II). The ACO constantly sought variety in its interpretation, through dynamic manipulation and also through varying the size of the ensemble: a case in point was when the principals alone played the initial statement of the Gavotte. The gesture of slightly easing the tempo just before the return to the home key mid-way through the second half of a movement became something of a mannerism, but a forgivable one that helped orient the listener.

The first half finished with what for me was the undoubted highlight of the program: Handel’s Salve Regina. The delicate growth of sound on her opening notes won me over completely, and while there was some passagework later, the work mostly showcased other sides to Lezhneva’s art. The second movement was the most introspective, with highly expressive, slow-moving lines for the soprano. The exuberant organ at the start of the third movement felt like a rude shock, but kudos to Erin Helyard, who matched the soprano semiquaver for semiquaver. Counterintuitively, but magically, the work finished in a subdued, reflective state.

With the exception of the opening item, the altered second half program was an all-Handel affair, although there was variety in terms of the sources mined (the excerpts were from operas, oratorios and secular cantatas). The opening Sinfonia from Vivaldi’s Ottone in villa had some edgy articulation from the strings and some effective duelling passages between Richard Tognetti and Satu Vänskä. Lezhneva re-entered in a new dress for “Un pensiero nemico di pace”, where she confirmed her mastery of frenetic runs. Given her obvious technical abilities, I was left wondering why she took a breath on two occasions just before cadential points. “Felicissima quest’alma” stood out from the program for the beautifully played obbligato oboe line and the delightful pizzicato accompaniment.

Again, Lezhneva’s involvement this half was in two parts, interspersed this time with Handel’s Sonata a 5 which was in all but name a violin concerto for Tognetti. He wasn’t the only one to have his moment in the sun here: the lutenist Axel Wolf improvised a series of links between the sustained chords in the second movement. The final two arias were taken from the role of Rossane in Alessandro: “Alla sua gabbia d’oro” and “Brill nell’alma” confirmed her status as darling of the nearly capacity venue. Her first encore from Hasse's Siroe took matters into freak territory, so fiendish was the coloratura, but finishing with the ever-popular “Lascia la spina” confirmed that Julia Lezhneva is so much more than a technician.