Magdalena Kožená in a New Recital

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SOIRÉE / CHAUSSON: Chanson perpétuelle.1-4,7 DVOŘÁK (arr. Ward): Má píseň zas mi láskou zní. Širokými rukávy. Mé srdce často. Žalo dievča. Když mne stará matka. Struna naladěna. Dobrú noc.1-7  BRAHMS: 2 Songs: Gestillte Sehnsucht. Geistliches Wiegenlied.3,7 STRAVINSKY: 3 Songs from Shakespeare: Musick to heare. Full fadom five. When Daisies pied.3,5,6 RAVEL: Chansons madécasses.4,6 BRAHMS: 5 Ophelia Songs (arr. Reimann).1-4 JANÁČEK: Řikadla (Nursery Rhymes).5,7 STRAUSS: Morgen1,7 / Magdalena Kožená, mez; 1Wolfram Brandl, 2Rahel Rilling, vln; 3Yulia Deyenka, vla; 4David Adorjan, cel; 5Andrew Marriner, cl; 6Kaspar Zehnder, fl; 7Sir Simon Rattle, pno / Pentatone PTC5186671

Magdalena Kožená, who got her start singing Baroque music, has always had a very pretty voice and a good technique. Of that, there has never been any doubt. The question with her, as it was with Elly Ameling, is whether or not she a good interpreter, and to date I’ve found her seriously lacking in emotion or a connection to the words of a song.

In this particular recital, she was wise to stick primarily to those kinds of songs that suit her voice and style. With that being said, I was really impressed by her sensitive rendition of Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle in which she is accompanied by string quartet and piano. Her pianist here is her husband, famed conductor Sir Simon Rattle, so perhaps he had some effect on coaching more expression than usual from her. One thing I noticed, to the good, is that her voice has deepened with time. Her lower range, once merely pretty, has a richer quality which she uses to good effect in this opening number. Although Rattle plays well behind her, it is really the string quartet that provides the oomph in this selection.

The same string quartet, amplified by clarinet and flute, accompany her in the Dvořák group, and once again I was surprised by her new commitment to interpreting. Moreover, the chamber group provides a richer context for her than if it were just piano. I really enjoyed Duncan Ward’s instrumental arrangements here, tasteful and supportive without trying to be something they are not. Both Kožená and the chamber musicians are particularly lively in Širokými rukávy, which has just the right Bohemian flavor for this song. I should also add that her diction is crystal-clear, always a plus for any singer, and I was extremely happy not to hear her drag out Songs my mother taught me as far too many singers have done over the last century. The strings are tuned is also sung and played in a lively manner.

In the first group of Brahms songs, the depth of David Adorjan’s cello perfectly complements Rattle’s dreamy pianism. Kožená sings with great repose, but here I felt just a little lacking in felling—not a lot, mind you, but just that extra something that would grab you.

I fully expected Kožená, who is an outstanding musician, to be able to sing the three Stravinsky Songs from Shakespeare well, and she does, despite her heavily-accented English which here obscures the words. Oh well; this is probably what Jon Vickers’ fairly awful German sounded like to native Teutonic speakers. I could just barely make out her singing of the words “Full fadom five”; the only clearly-sung words were “ding dong.”

I don’t speak French myself, but I can pronounce French words very well (without knowing what most of them mean), and to my ears her French was not particularly good either, yet she sings Ravel’s Chansons madécasses with a beautiful line, which is all that really matters in this music. But then again, her husband is one of the finest Ravel interpreters on the podium, so I sort of expected her to have the style right, and she is surprisingly intense in “Aoua!” The Brahms “Ophelia songs” are nice, but not among his finest creations, though she sings them well.

Needless to say, she sings Janáček’s nursery rhymes very well indeed, and the music is wonderfully wacky. The finale is an all-time chestnut, Strauss’ Morgen, in a fairly nice arrangement for violin and piano accompaniment. Since this is a song that calls primarily for the kind of virtues that Kožená possesses in spades—a fine legato and perfect dynamics control—it was a foregone conclusion that she would be able to do a good job on it, and she does, if not in the same class as Leo Slezak.

A surprisingly good outing for Kožená, then, with some excellent music to boot.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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