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S & H Recital Review

Haydn, Britten, Schulhoff, Wolf Magdalena Kožená (mezzo); Malcolm Martineau (piano), Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday, February 16th, 2004 (CC)


Magdalena Kožená’s star is definitely in the ascendant. The buzz of anticipation in the Wigmore foyer (not to mention the huge queue for returns) indicated an artist of stature was in town.

Kožená’s programme was wide-ranging, and was perhaps designed to show off her linguistic abilities as well as her musical ones: English (Haydn), French (Britten), Czech (Schulhoff) and German (Wolf) were all present, although just how correct they were is a matter for debate. An interesting conceit, though, to have English and French set by ‘foreigners’ – perhaps how Kožená herself felt, handling these texts?

Three of Haydn’s English Songs started things off. The mermaid’s song (1794) had a clear element of seduction, with Kožená’s creamy low register emerging as most appealing. Martineau’s accompaniment was rich of tone yet managed to remain stylish. If Kožená was on the bleaty side in the final song (perhaps ironically entitled, O tuneful voice), she and her accompanist revealed unexpected depths in The spirit’s song. Desolate octaves in the piano and a generally portentous feeling made this a memorable experience.

Moving from an Austrian setting English to an Englishman setting French, Kožená presented four songs from Britten’s ‘Folksong Arrangements, Volume 2, France’. The easy simplicity of La belle est au jardin d’amou was a success from both protagonists, while Martineau projected the entirely characteristic piano part of the second well. But it was the third, Il est quelqu’un sur la terre that provided the first true highlight of the recital. Evidently settled, the two performers became the hushed epitome of peace. The final Quand j’étais chez mon pčre clearly revealed Britten’s debt to Mahler while also providing the first evidence of Kožená truly letting go.

Eschewing the more obvious Dvořák or Martinů, the Czech part of the recital came from the pen of Ervin Schulhoff (1894-1942), his Folk Songs and Dances from the Tesín Region dating from 1936. Taking material from the North West of the Czech Republic, they are charming, short pieces. Of course here the words were crystal clear, yet there seemed to be some disjunction between the text provided and what we heard – either Kožená omitted the háček on ‘něbudu’ or it was very, very slight (because later, in the fifth song, the same accent was there but distinctly weak on the word ‘jedině’).

It was announced that Kožená would only sing the first three verses of ‘Svatebni’ (‘Wedding Song’), a constraint presumably due to the Radio 3 broadcast yet a shame as this was tender in the extreme. And how beautiful was Kožená’s sung ‘ř’, a sound us poor English-speakers spend months even approximating in speech!. The final ‘Pasala volky na bikovinĕ’ (‘She was grazing her cows’) was marvellously jaunty and witty.

Five Mörike-Lieder by Wolf rounded off the programmed recital (two attractive encores supplied the ‘missing’ Dvořák and Martinů). There was much musicality to admire here, from the music-box ‘Zum neuen Jahr’ to the Wagnerian-breadth-in-microcosm of ‘Schlafendes Jesuskind’. A pity that Kožená’s accent rounded out some of the harder German sounds, softening the effect of some lines and words (for example ‘schwarzen’ had little of the ‘tz’ Germanic ‘z’ sound).

Nevertheless this remains a memorable recital. The highlights really were special and it will be interesting to see if Kožená’s trajectory towards super-stardom remains on course.

Colin Clarke



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