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Magdalena Kozená [Photo by Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]
06 Feb 2011

Magdalena Kozená, Wigmore Hall

It’s a rare recital that can be at one and the same time intensely intimate and extravagantly exuberant, but that’s just what Magdalena Kozená and the eight-piece Austrian ensemble Private Musicke achieved in this fascinating and exhilarating concert, which brought a thrill of passion, spontaneity and excitement to the usually more restrained and rarified atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall.

Magdalena Kozená, Wigmore Hall

Magdalena Kozená, mezzo-soprano; Private Musicke. Wigmore Hall, London,

Above: Magdalena Kozená [Photo by Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]


Wandering nonchalantly on the Wigmore Hall stage, as they strummed and struck the opening bars of Filippo’s Vitali’s fiery ‘O bel lumi’ (‘O beautiful eyes’), Private Musicke resembled a band of medieval minstrels, relaxed troubadours enjoying and celebrating their art. They and Kozená proceeded to entertain, surprise and seduce us with a performance of seventeenth-century songs and instrumental works by Monteverdi and his lesser known contemporaries. Variations of tone and colour, pace and texture — created as much by Kozená’s vocal variety as by the ever-changing, inventively-enriching combinations of violone, guitar, colascione, theorbo, harp, lira da gamba and myriad percussion — delineated all possible shades of passion, pleasure, poignancy and pain. The love of which these ‘letters’ speak is multifaceted and protean, transmuting from religious to maternal, from fraternal to amatory, from unrequited to erotic; moreover, Kozená relished the exploration of the boundaries where affection modulates to disdain or obsessive desire turns to vengeful hatred.

Many of these songs possess both a sweet simplicity and more troubling complexity, none more so than Tarquino Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra all nanna’, ostensibly a gentle lullaby sung by the Virgin Mary, but, as it evolves into a anguished lament, revealing disturbing fear of impending loss and dark portents of death and despair. Dissonant semitones which rustle the sparse serenity of the opening grow to become insistent hammer blows in the bass, evoking both the mother’s racking sobs and the alarmingly violent rocking of the cradle: ‘Ah, in your divine breast/ my sweet love and delight,/ a cruel, treacherous spear/ will strike a fatal blow.’ As the mother’s distress overwhelms her, so the accompaniment texture is augmented, taking on a distinctly Moorish colouring; the refrain, ‘My beloved, my love’, echoes through the song, increasingly imploring and inconsolable. Surprising dynamic surges inject further unrest, but in the final lines — ‘what shall I do?/ I shall gaze on my love:/ I shall stay with my head bowed/ as long as my Baby sleeps.’ — the translucency of Kozená’s upper register brings about an uneasy peace.

These songs may not be technically ‘difficult’, but Kozená is able to explore their textual and emotional intricacy, and one senses that the ‘meaning’ she finds is often personal. However, pain and poignancy are certainly balanced by pleasure and joy, and if there is much aggrieved reflection there is also excitement and energy, not least because of the way that the songs segued into one another. Thus, the exclamatory tone and rhythmic vitality of Caccini’s lover’s lament, ‘Odi, Euterpe’ (‘Hear, Euterpe’), culminated in a joyous cry which overspilled into the boisterous instrumental ‘Caravanda Ciacona’ by Luis de Briçeño; and, Giovanni de Macque’s ‘Capriccio stravagante’ formed a seamless link with the subsequent ‘Aurilla mia’ (‘My Aurilla’) by Girolamo Kapsberger, triplets and syncopations effortlessly creating forward momentum.

Renowned for her rich, resonant beauty of tone and seamless legato phrasing, Kozená is not afraid to experiment, and to place sincerity of expression above ‘mere’ vocal loveliness. And, there could be no doubting the pain experienced by the poet-speaker of Sigismondo D’India’s ‘Cruda Amarylli’, as the soprano swelled sharply through the opening syllable, ‘Cruda’ (‘cruel’), and injected a bitter irony as she described Amaryllis, ‘purer and more lovely/ than a snow-white flower’. Twists to the minor tonality, enhanced by vocal emphasis, suggested the elusiveness of the ‘unhearing viper’, and surprising harmonic diversions brought drama and rhetoric to the singer’s provocative and self-defining assertion, ‘I’ mi morrò tacendo’ (‘In silence I shall die’).

Similarly, D'India's ‘Ma Che? Squallido e Oscuro’ (‘Though you are Wretched’) is a rhetorical tour de force: major/minor oscillations, a declamatory style ornamented with melismatic flourishes (‘il furto e ‘l temerario ardire’ — ‘my bold desires and reckless daring’), enriching orchestrations (‘Che sì caldi sperai, vuo’ pur rapire’ — ‘the cold kisses that I hoped would be warm’) and startling chromaticism combined to communicate the lover’s agony at the impending death of his beloved. The astonishing contra-motion which concludes the song, the bass descending as the voice makes a winding chromatic ascent, was rendered even more astonishing as it was breathlessly followed by the lightness and joy of Kapsberger’s ‘Felici gl’animi’ (Happy the souls’) which, despite its rhythmic pleasure and animation, could not quite dispel the disquieting echoes of the former song.

Kozená rose to the peak of her powers in Barbara Strozzi's ‘L'Eraclito Amoroso’ (‘Amorous Heraclitus’) in which the ancient Greek philosopher’s sobs and sighs of anger and despair alternate alarmingly. Kozená exploited every dissonance, every textural or dynamic variation, every opportunity for rubato and flexibility, exaggerating and manipulating each element and using thrilling ornamentation to communicate the protagonist’s distress. An astonishing descent to the brooding, resonant depths of her register was frightening in its unalleviated melancholy: ‘Let all sorrow assail me,/ all grief last for ever,/ let all misfortune so afflict me/ tha tit kills and buries me.’

The instrumental dances which were interspersed throughout the programme did much more than simply vary the pace and mood. Led by guitarist Pierre Pitzl, the players missed no occasion to draw the tiny threads of the song to the surface of the accompaniment; one can only marvel at the patterns and motifs they located and exploited, improvising and inventing with effortless skill and insight — one sensed that they could go on spinning these songs for eternity.

In the CD note which accompanies the recent Deutsche Grammophon recording of these Lettere Amorose, Kozená reminds us that she “grew up with this music”, joining with a lutenist to perform these secular songs while studying at Brno University and revelling in the creative freedom the music, with its lack of strict notational instructions, allowed her. She and Private Musicke certainly achieve their intention to take us back to the popular origins of the songs: “It comes from a time when there was no equivalent to our divide between classical and pop music; it was simply the music everyone heard and sang.” Certainly, she and her colleagues convincingly conveyed the universality of the sentiments and the ‘naturalness’ of their expression. Indeed, at times, the emotional intensity combined with imaginative liberty was astonishingly reminiscent of the modern-day rock concert, as the music seemed to capture and, by turns, ease, intrigue and bewitch the souls of the listeners in the Wigmore Hall.

There are, of course, other ways of performing this repertoire — after all, Kozená stresses that they have deliberately made their own arrangements, freely exploring different instrumentations — and some may prefer less overt showmanship and a more reflective exploration of text and music. On occasion Kozená retreated to the rear of the platform, her voice one among many; but elsewhere she advanced to the very forefront of the centre stage, and occasionally her voice seemed almost too large for the performance space and context, as if her own performance threatened to take precedence over the material itself. However, the collaborators’ obvious delight in each other’s performances and in the collectivity of such music-making was infections. Kozená and Private Musicke presented a wholly committed and coherent vision, one which flourished and grew in a live, evolving exchange with the audience. And, in so doing, they released the latent drama in these small, intimate forms, in an astonishingly rich and rewarding performance.

Claire Seymour


Vitali: ‘O bei lumi’
D’India: ‘Cruda Amarilli’
Caccini: ‘Odi, Euterpe, il dolce canto’
Briceno: Caravanda Ciacona
Merula: ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nonna’
Sanz: Canarios
D’India: ‘Torna il sereno Zefiro’
Marini: ‘Con le stelle in ciel che mai’
Foscarini: Passamezzo
Monteverdi: ‘Sí dolce è’l tormento’
Macque: Capriccio stravagante
Kapsberger: ‘Aurilla mia’
D’India ‘Ma che? squallid'e oscuro’
Kapsberger: ‘Felici gl'animi’
Foscarini: Ciaccona
Strozzi: ‘L'Eraclito amoroso’
Ribayaz: Espanioletta
Merula: ‘Folle è ben che si crede’
Monteverdi: ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’

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