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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Martinů, Dvořák, Britten, Ravel, Mussorgsky Magdalena Kožená (mezzo); Malcolm Martineau (piano), QEH, 8 June, 2005 (CC)



Magdalena Kožená seems to go from strength to strength. In a typically multi-lingual programme (Czech, French and Russian) she demonstrated real affinity with the works she chose.


Her home territory was represented initially by Martinů’s ‘Nový Špalíček’ (translated in the programme booklet as ‘The New Chap-Book’!). Taking Moravian folk texts from Frantiček Sušil’s collection of a century earlier, the composer provides masterly settings, sometimes of deceptive simplicity (as in ‘Prosba’, a prayer) or the brief but exceedingly delightful, ‘Veselé dievča’ (‘The cheerful girl’). Of course the sadness of forsaken love is bound by duty to crop up, and surely enough there it is in the second song, with its sighing figures in the accompaniment, its dolente aura and its true pianissimi. No easy matter to begin a recital with material such as this, but when it comes off – as it did here – it is mightily effective.


The name of Dvořák on the programme should raise no eyebrows, but what did was Kožená and Martineau’s performance. The nostalgia of the first song of V národním tónu (‘In Folk Tone’), Op. 73, ‘Dobrú nic, má milá’ (‘Good night, my love’) was perfectly caught (and such clean intervals from the singer), while the third song, ‘Ach není, není tu’ (‘Oh there is nothing left’) was meltingly tender. Perhaps only in the second song, ‘Žalo dievča, žalo trávu’ (‘There was a girl she mowed the grass’) was there call for admonition. The second stanza begins in quotation marks as the young girl calls out to the lad; these lines were not sufficiently differentiated from the rest of the poem.


Perhaps sensibly, Kožená chose music by Britten that uses the French language. Kožená and Martineau performed these songs (Four French Folksongs) at a Wigmore lunchtime in 2004, where they nestled, possibly more comfortably, amongst works by Haydn, Schulhoff and Wolf. What came across most strongly was how Britten’s evident affection for the French words he set was mirrored by Kožená and Martineau’s affection for Britten’s music. Interesting too that the almost Ravelian ‘Fileuse’, with its pedal-piano haze, seemed an aural link to the Ravel proper after the interval.


Ravel’s elusive Trois počmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, reflecting the sophistication of the chosen texts, not only confirmed Kožená’s excellent French but also her intelligence. This is difficult Ravel in its eschewance of indulgence, and Kožená and Martineau sculpted the mélodies exquisitely, bringing real concentration also to the final ‘Surgi de la croupe et du bond’. The later Don Quichotte ŕ Dulcinée found Kožená marking he contrast between the dark ‘Chanson épique’ and the humorous ‘Chanson ŕ boire’ (a drinking song that found her draped across the piano at one point).


Indeed, one of Kožená’s many strengths is her characterization, a talent that was brought to bear in no small measure for her performance of Mussorgsky’s Nursery cycle. She tells stories so well (as in the case of ‘little Misha’’s alleged misdemeanours in the second song, ‘In the corner’). Mussorgsky’s songs encompass a wide varieties of modes of declamation, from almost patter in ‘The beetle’ to near-Sprechgesang in ‘With the doll’, none of which posed any problems for Kožená.


A remarkable recital from a mezzo who seems to go from strength to strength. She is lucky, too, to enjoy a near-telepathic rapport with her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau.



Colin Clarke

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