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Seen and Heard Recital Review



Mendelssohn, Schumann, Dvořák and Wolf: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano) / Malcolm Martineau (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 21.9.2006 (ED)


For a number of seasons now the partnership of Magdalena Kožená and Malcolm Martineau has been a major attraction of lovers of art song. Each recital is highly anticipated because of the insight that both artists bring to the event. Kožená, in particular, profits from her very wide repertoire, and nowhere is this more evident than in her song recitals. This recital might not have cast the net as wide as on some previous occasions, but it was imbued with a sense of imagination that was felt as much in the programming as in the interpretation.


The recital began with five songs by Felix Mendelssohn. His songs, along with those by his sister Fanny, deserve more of a public hearing than they often get. Martineau and Kožená though did them full justice,drawing out with subtlety the lapping waters of the lagoon in Venetianisches Gondellied, for example. The atmosphere mixed readily with evident longing and passion in Kožená’s interpretation of the words and did much to bring the evening’s recurrent motif of love’s emotions to life.  Neue Liebe created an effective contrast in tempo and tone, yet maintained the theme. Nachtlied, a song that seeks to link nightly solitude with the passion of lovers’ togetherness, was searchingly given by Kožená, lingering sensuously to emphasise meaning with the half-lights that piano markings can afford an alert interpreter. If introspection characterised much of her reading in that song, it was dashed with the wide-eyed childish sense of wonder that she brought to Hexenlied.


As Hexenlied showed, Kožená’s voice can seemingly at once be possessed of youthfulness and a certain maturity gained through self awareness of her own gifts and abilities. Schumann’s setting of Adelbert von Chamisso’s poetry cycle Frauenlieben und –leben is a work that requires of its interpreter the ability to chart a woman’s life from innocent youth to knowing maturity in the space of some twenty minutes. Kožená achieved this by drawing out the cycle’s progression through varying her tone and lighting on specific words to telling effect in each song. Many do this, but that she also made one feel that she too suffered the psychological disintegration of Chamisso’s subject made her interpretation a significant one.


The reading achieved that rare thing of publicly sharing private emotions without sacrificing their intensely personal nature.  Evenly shimmering mezzo-piano tone inflected the passions of youth of the first song, the second stanza of which was shaded down still further: she felt a love so strong she almost dare not reveal it. Joy was rightly at the heart of her open declaration of love in the second song. The third song gave brief voice to the words of her lover – “I am forever yours” – those words alone were given with such formality as to make one know the gentleman feels an altogether different love from that of his besotted lover. A rite of passage – marriage – is marked in the next song, and with it duty enters the frame for the woman, but it is a duty that quickly turns to desperation as the relationship sours. Emptiness and hopelessness pervade the final three songs, in a sequence that brought out the humiliation of pleading for a return to happier times and the desolation of final rejection. Schumann’s mastery is in matching his accompaniments so exactly to the moods the texts infer for each song, to the extent that one might almost hear the piano as the woman’s all-but-wordless love in the cycle. As the man exerts the true power and influence that leaves the woman desolate in the poems, so Martineau shadowed Kožená’s every inflection to leave his own trace of comments on the unfolding drama. Nowhere was this more strongly felt than in the eerie postlude, which Schumann uses to give us all cause to reflect on how the human condition is affected by love’s turbulent passage.


I understand Kožená’s desire to promote Czech music, but I do not share her enthusiasm for Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs. The set of seven songs is perhaps amongst the weakest of the composer’s better known works. Although the vocal part does present occasional challenges, the real weakness is in the piano accompaniment, as it hardly ever sounds a natural fit with the words it accompanies. Only the fourth song – Songs my mother taught me, co-incidentally the most famous of the set – seems to rise at all above the half way decent in terms of overall achievement. All that said, Martineau made a brave stab at drawing something coherent from Dvořák’s awkward writing. Kožená used the songs to raise folk poetry to a level higher than its original calling, showing off the rich depth of her mezzo tones and lingeringly floated vowels in combination with an emotional range that captured solitude and dramatic urgency with equal ease.


A small selection of Hugo Wolf’s Mörike lieder closed the programme. Zum neuen Jahr gave Kožená’s upper register an extended airing, and was effective for the freshness that it brought at that moment in the evening. Elfenlied had a fair share of impetuousness about it,with Kožená relishing the fun inherent in both music and text. Momentary reverence was brought to Schlafendes Jesuskind in her deep and resonantly projected tone, before launching headlong into Abschied. Having nothing fear from any critic in the world (at least I would hope that is the case), Kožená nonetheless delighted in the opportunity to give any dissenters a firm kicking for their views, illustrating the text vividly through singing that explored the very edge of the written notes. Martineau joined in the fun with a superbly poised and exuberant Viennese waltz accompaniment.


Two encores were given: I dreamt last night that we were dead, by Dvořák, and When I was on my Mother’s lap, by Erwin Schulhoff. The latter in particular afforded a glimpse of still wider vocal territory that Kožená excels in.




Evan Dickerson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)