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Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing
27 Aug 2013

Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing

Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.

Magdalena Kožená: Love and Longing

A review by Claire Seymour

Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0065 8 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

The successes of Antonin Dvořák’s early months in America — his appointment as director and professor at the National Conservatoire of Music in New York in 1892, the gratifying reception of the New World Symphony the following year — were countered by loss and sadness. The deaths of two friends, Tchaikovsky and Hans von Bülow, (in November 1893 and February 1894 respectively) and the news of his father’s terminal illness deepened the composer’s nostalgia for his Bohemian homeland. Profoundly religious, Dvořák sought relief not only in his faith but also in his native language: his Biblical Songs, composed in 1894 in the space of just a few weeks, is a cycle of ten settings of the Psalms, the texts being taken from the Kralicka, the Czech Bible which dates back to 1579.

As a native speaker, Magdalena Kožená is perfectly placed both to appreciate the poetic beauty of these texts, and to convey the sincerity of the settings to the listener through Dvořák’s simple yet affecting melodies. Throughout she demonstrates an instinctive affinity with the composer’s means of expression, and the understated, restrained manner of her delivery captures the intently personal nature of Dvořák’s expression of faith. Aided by the superb Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Kožená’s husband, Sir Simon Rattle, Kožená captures myriad moods, her tone ceaselessly velvety.

The declamatory focus of the opening song, ‘Oblak a mrákota jest vůkol něho’ (Clouds and darkness are round about him) is typical of the controlled intensity of Kožená’s performance; the soaring recitative-like vocal pronouncements are punctuated by dramatic pictorial commentary by the players of the Berlin Philharmonic. In ‘Skrýše má a paveza má Ty jsi’ (You are my hiding place and my shield) the exquisite tenderness of the woodwind and high string accompaniment evokes the calm trust expressed in the text, but Rattle is alert to every twist and nuance of emotion, finding darker colours and impassioned movement to match the changes of timbre as Kožená conveys the interior intensity of the lines.

Woodwind solos entwine sweetly with the more sinuous vocal melody in ‘Slyš, ó Bože, slyš modlitbu mou’ (Give ear to my prayer, O God) — of particular note is some wonderfully mellifluous clarinet playing; as the voice rises and becomes more rapturous, ‘My heart is sore pained within me; and the terrors of death are fallen upon me’, Kožená never exaggerates the emotions of the text, her honeyed tone always pure and the sentiments convincingly honest. The mezzo-soprano’s lustrous dark lower register is used to magical effect in ‘Hospodin jest můj pastýř’ (The Lord is my shepherd); and, the sincerity of the plainchant-like opening is deepened by the subsequent enrichment of the instrumental fabric, and the folk-like nuances of the melodic line. The Bohemian idiom dominates ‘Bože, Bože, píseň novou’ (I will sing a new song unto you, O God), which begins with a burst of bright optimism from the full orchestra, as Kožená introduces a bright nimbleness into the lilting melody.

‘Slyš, ó Bože, volání mé’ (Hear my cry, O God) is more contemplative and the seamless vocal lines have a powerful yet restrained intensity. ‘Při řekách babylonských’ (By the rivers of Babylon) ranges across diverse moods whose emotional impact results as much from Rattle’s marvellous attention to the details of the instrumental texture as to Kožená’s affectionately inflected vocal line. ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, she asks, the voice plunging on ‘strange’ before the accompaniment warms to provide some hint of consolation.

After the more rhetorical ‘Popatřiž na mne a smiluj se nade mnou’ (Turn you unto me and have mercy upon me), a folk-like ardency enriches ‘Pozdvihuji očí svých k horám’ (I will lift up mine eyes until the hills), before, in the concluding ‘Zpívejte Hospodinou píseň novou’ (Sing unto the Lord a new song) Kožená’s ringing pentatonic melodies, the jubilant horn interjections and vibrant pizzicato strings bring the cycle to an affirmative, exuberant conclusion.

Kožená and the Berlin Philharmonic slip with matching effortlessness into a more exotic, sensuous mode in Maurice Ravel’s magically evocative Shéhérazade; the orchestral players relish the composer’s luxurious but sharply defined sonorities, above which the mezzo-soprano — her French clearly enunciated and idiomatic — soars and floats, paradoxically blending innocence and ecstasy.

Only an overture remains of the young Ravel’s first operatic flirtation with this subject, but in 1903 he returned to the tales of the oriental seducer. At the time, Ravel belonged to a bohemian artistic society, Les Apaches, which aimed to promote cutting-edge culture; when one of his fellow Apaches Tristan Klingsor (born Arthur Leclère), published a collection of poems entitled Shéhérazade, Ravel eagerly set three of these poems: ‘Asie’, ‘La flûte enchantée’, and ‘L'indifférent’.

‘Asie’, substantially longer than the other two songs, was originally the concluding number. The text roves through a series of alluring, exotic experiences which the traveller desires and imagines, the dazzling instrumental realisation of such temptations tempered by a tone of pragmatic yearning. The inevitable introductory melody played by the ‘oriental’ oboe is arrestingly enticing, and Kožená’s recitation, in which she imagines Asia as ‘wonderland of nursery tales’ is bewitching — the French text rolling like syrup, the voice swooping to the depths, ‘in her full forest of mystery’ — while the gamelan-like instrumental colours tremble and pulsate.

As the wanderer imagines the unfamiliar, exhilarating travels which beckon, Rattle’s players provide an instrumental complement — violent sweeping harp glissandi, sensuously rocking string motifs; airy flutes and tremulous viola motifs, whisk us to Syria, Persia, India, China. Kožená’s mezzo soprano is gloriously uplifting and mellow; and the climactic vocal phrases, ‘Je voudrais voir des roses et du sang;/ Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien de haine’ (I should like to see roses and blood;/ I should like to see death from love or from hate) are accompanied by some disturbingly apocalyptic instrumental surges.

Then, there is silence; the traveller will return from wild places and relate her adventures to those ‘interested in dreams’ — her wild escapades contained within an evocative cello solo which articulates her tales with mournful poignancy.

In ‘La flûte enchantée’ the fluid transition from and between voice and flute is stunning, an uncanny embodiment of the song’s final lines: ‘Il me semble que chaque note s’envoie/ De la flûte vers ma joue/ Comme un mystérieux baiser’ (Each note seems to me to take flight from the flute to my cheek like a mysterious kiss). Mesmerised, then suddenly energised upon awakening, Kožená is by turns capricious and then languorous; the flute has the final word — an insouciant fragment, dissolving like an imaginary caress.

In the instrumental passage which opens ‘L'indifférent’, Rattle establishes a dreamy air, but one which becomes ever more infused with melancholy loneliness as the song proceeds. The dusky warmth of Kožená’s rich mezzo suggests a touching desire for human contact, but the tumbling fall of the command, ‘Entre!’, is refuted by the wistful, resigned vision of the stranger moving past and beyond the threshold.

Mahler’s Five Rückert songs are similarly dramatized with subtle but telling artistry. Kožená’s voice assumes yet more hues, by turns earthbound and ethereal, the fairly brisk tempo and breathily suspended instrumental support of ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If you love for beauty) conveying youthful impetuousness. The fleeting ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ (Do not look at my songs) allows Kožená to make much of the agile lightness of her voice; following the closing promise that when the rich honeycombs have been carried to the light of day, ‘you shall taste them first!’ is unnervingly enigmatic.

After the burnished, shadowy ambience of ‘Um Mitterbacht’ (At midnight), the translucent eloquence of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I breathed a gentle fragrance) quite literally transports the listener to another world. ‘Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen’ (I am Lost to the World) is perhaps the most movingly beautiful of all the songs on this disc; the performers are in perfect accord, and the result is deeply stirring.

Throughout this wonderful performance, Kožená’s melodic and linguistic ease create a sense of artlessness which belies profound musicianship and skill. The technicians of Deutsche Grammophon display similar levels of excellence: the quality of sound is a pristine as the recording studio, but the immediacy conveys the inimitable frisson of the concert hall.

Claire Seymour

Recording details:

Love and Longing: Dvořák, Biblické pisnê Op.99; Ravel, Shéhérazade; Mahler, Fünf Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Rückert. Magdalena Kožená, mezzo soprano; Simon Rattle, conductor. Berliner Philharmoniker. Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0065 8 [CD].

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