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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alcina HWV 34: Ah! Mio cor! Schernito sei [10:39]
Hercules HWV 60: Where shall I fly? [06:23]
Agrippina HWV 6: Pensieri, voi mi tormentate [07:19]
Giulio Cesare in Egitto HWV 17: Cara speme [05:53]
Joshua HWV 64: Oh! Had I Jubal’s lyre [02:29]
Ariodante HWV 33: Scherza infida in grembo al drudo [11:30]
Theodora HWV 68: With darkness deep as is my woe [05:51]
Amadigi di Gaula HWV 11: Desterò dall’empia Dite [05:41]
Orlando HWV 31: Ah! Stigie larve! – Già latra Cerbero – Vaghe pupille [07:37]
Ariodante HWV 33: Dopo notte, atra e funesta [06:40]
Rinaldo HWV 7: Lascia ch’io pianga [04:58]
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo)

Venice Baroque Orchestra/Andrea Marcon
rec. March 2006, Gustav Mahler Saal, Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Toblach
ARCHIV PRODUCTION CD 477 6547 [76:34]

Magdalena Kožená has built up a varied and much-praised discography over the last ten years. I have personally encountered only one of her discs, dedicated to Mozart, Gluck and Mysliveček, which I found warmly enjoyable. I seem not to be alone in questioning whether she is really a mezzo-soprano but there appears to be general agreement about her beauty of tone and refined interpretations. My previous encounter did not prepare me in any way for the present disc which quite simply sent me reeling.

Not, perhaps, from the word go. In the opening aria from "Alcina" I admired once again the golden limpidity of her timbre, which I still found more soprano-like. I also noted that she was using more vibrato than is normal in "historically informed practice" (henceforth HIP). Later on in the disc, however, I found that Kožená can equally eschew vibrato altogether.

But this was just the calm before the storm. In Dejanira’s mad scene from “Hercules”, Andrea Marcon’s period band kicks off with a rasping, saw-like sound. Thereafter Kožená ranges through a gamut of shrieks, shouts, gasps and deep growls. Here and in the "Orlando" excerpt, Handel is wrenched into the world of stark, expressionist music theatre. It’s a phenomenal, gripping experience.

Hereafter, Kožená finds a different vocal style for each character. She shows in Ariodante’s "Dopo notte" that she can throw off fast coloratura with pin-point accuracy, yet meaningfully. The familiar "Lascia ch’io pianga" which closes the recital is deliberately given a more broken line than we normally hear. It is strangely affecting. It is fascinating, too, to hear extracts from two of the English oratorios sounding so utterly un-English. The well-known "Oh! Had I Jubal’s lyre" presses ahead urgently, the lament from "Theodora" assumes almost Mahlerian grief. Again, the word expressionist came to mind.

At this point I would like to quote from Kožená herself:

"In Baroque music sometimes I can sing alto, sometimes soprano; I love to use the range of my voice to express colour. If I sing ‘Oh! Had I Jubal’s lyre’, it should be an angelic voice, whereas for Orlando’s mad scene, you can allow even slightly ugly sounds, because that says something about his state of mind". Such is her passion for getting to the heart of a character that Kožená is prepared to take risks that other singers might not attempt – going deep into the chest voice, for example. “… I can do the extremes, the very low and very high notes, but it’s not my natural range. So you get a sound that may not be so lovely yet says so much more about the text … I personally get bored after ten minutes of listening to a singer who produces just a beautiful sound!".

I would not describe this as HIP singing – it is simply sui generis. Yet it takes its inspiration from HIP and I cannot imagine it working with a smooth modern orchestra. The Venice Baroque Orchestra make a very positive contribution. I’ve already pointed out their ugly rasps in the mad scenes, but they also create moments of breathtaking beauty, the wind soloists producing an ethereal, disembodied sound – the oboe obbligato in the "Agrippina" aria, for instance.

Time was, we "knew" that Handel wrote in long, flowing lines, his personality dominated by his noble simplicity and dignity of utterance. For better or for worse, there’s not a trace of that here. What there is instead is utterly convincing and compelling. I would need a few days’ rest before I could take older performances on their own terms. I tried, in fact, putting on the version of the "Orlando" scene by James Bowman and Christopher Hogwood. It sounded bland and after a while I had to take it off. And yet these were trend-setters in their day! Compared with Kožená and company they sound like cleaned-up Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Perhaps Kožená will revolutionize Handel interpretation. She certainly seems to have revolutionized her own interpretation to date in so far as I know it. My only concern is that I wouldn’t like to hear this manner adopted by someone who did it badly. And I should think it would be an excellent way to ruin your voice in six weeks if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, as Kožená clearly does.

The booklet gives full texts with translations into English (where not the original language), French and German. The interview which I quote from above is not included as such but the introductory essay by Nick Kimberley reports its most revealing passages. Those following the singer's much commented photographic image should not be disappointed by the latest examples in which, cover excepted, her "golden" image is cunningly exploited in black and white. Oh, and I nearly forgot: the recording has magnificent presence.

So clear away preconceptions and be prepared for one of the most extraordinary vocal displays to have been issued in recent years.

Christopher Howell


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