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Schulhoff, Eben, Novák, Janáček, Martinů, Dvořák:  Magdalena Kožená (mezzo); Malcolm Martineau (piano). Barbican Concert Hall, 9.11. 2008 (CC)

As with the case of Kožená’s Barbican recital in 2006, this recital’s clear aim was to promote the singer’s most recent disc, in this case a recorded recital of Czech music entitled, “Songs my mother taught me” (DG 477 6665). If anything, this recital was even more successful in its aims. A pity the rainy Sunday had clearly frightened off a good number of people-although the stalls were fairly full, there seemed to be acres of space upstairs.

Again as with the 2006 recital, there was a last-minute change of programme order (the alteration meant that Dvořák “sandwiched” Martinů), announced right at the off. There wasn’t quite as much flicking around the booklet this time, though. The first half survived intact, beginning with a set of three extracts from the Folksongs and Dances from the Těšínsko region. Schulhoff (1894-1942) was taught by Debussy and was heavily influenced by jazz at certain periods in his life, finally losing his life to the Nazis. His harmonic language I fairly advanced, and yet the trio of songs consistently emanated a folkloric air. The dolorous second, “Sidej na vuz” (“Come and sit in my trap”) suited Kožená’s lustrous mezzo particularly well, while the final offering, “Kozala by tancolvala” (“I want to dance the Cossack dance”) was more active and playful, eliciting sizeable applause.

Petr Eben (1929-2007) is probably even less well-known than Schulhoff. He was a Holocaust survivor, and the booklet interview with Kožená makes reference to the singer knowing the composer in her student days. Personally, I only knew of some of his organ music prior to this. The music is fascinating. “Malé smutky” (“Little Sorrows”) is the title of the short cycle heard here. The first song, “Crying in one’s sleep” had a definite monumental, black aspect to it, and the melodic line did not always go where one would expect it to, while “Láska” (“Love”) began with a Schoenbergian piano phrase before hinting at jazz (hints again heard in “Dým z Cigarety”, or “Cigarette Smoke”). Fascinating.

For along time, the music of Novák has appealed to me. Kožená gave us the song-cycle Pohádka sdce, Op. 8 (“Fairytale of the Heart”). The music immediately entered a much warmer, more inviting sound-world. It was here that the excellent Martineau came into his own, with magnificently sensitive accompanying. Kožená gave her fair share of pleasure, too, with some superbly clean slurs in “Zda není snem?” (“Isn’t it a dream?”). There is an intense sadness to some of these songs. Janáček brought his own gloss of sophistication to folkoric material in his Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, a sophistication that nevertheless did not preclude foot-tapping rhythms (“Hájny”, or “Game warden”). A song with such a harmless title as “Little Apple” became a mini-scena. Finally for the first half, a magnificent song from the “Silesian Songs from Halina Salichová’s Collection” entitled “Hey, what nightingale is this one?”, folksy but pure Janáček, and the polonaise-inflected “In the black wood”.

The Dvořák that began the second half was the Love Songs, Op. 83. Those used to mainstream Dvořák might have been surprised by the concentrated nature of the musical expression and, indeed, a prevailing darkness. The music is satisfyingly wide-ranging, as, indeed were the Evening Songs, Op. 3, which included the famous “Songs my mother taught me” (which did not sound at all hackneyed in context).

Martinů’s Songs on Two Pages are effective and charming, culminating in a Czech patter-song (“The Lads from Zvolen”). This was a delightful evening, ending with two encoes (Bartók’s “The Wedding” and another offering by Janáček. Kožená’s career trajectory just goes from strength to strength.

Colin Clarke

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