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Love and Longing
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Biblické písně (Biblical Songs) for voice and orchestra, Op.99 (1894)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Shéhérazade, three poems for voice and orchestra on verses by Tristan Klingsor (1903)
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Rückert-Lieder, five songs on poems by Friedrich Rückert (1901/02)
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, January 2012, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
Full texts with English translations provided
Full track-list at end of review
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 0065 [64:11] 

Experience Classicsonline


Just how lucky is Magdalena Kožená to have the accompaniment of her husband Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on this her latest CD? Naturally such an advantage brings additional scrutiny and I was fascinated to hear how well the Czech mezzo would perform this beautiful programme of orchestral songs entitled Love and Longing.
 
It was 2001 when the Brno-born Kožená first came to my attention with her attractively sung Le Belle Immagini comprising songs by Gluck, Mozart and Mysliveček that she recorded at the Dvořák Hall, Prague. She was accompanied by the Prague Philharmonia conducted by Michel Swierczewski for Deutsche Grammophon.
 
Kožená’s opens proceedings with Dvořák’s Biblical Songs composed in 1894; a product of the composer’s stay in America. The Bohemian composer wrote comparatively little religious music and it is thought that he turned to setting sacred texts from the Book of Psalms as an expression of his homesickness and also in response to the death of several composer friends notably Tchaikovsky and von Bülow. It was in 1895 that he orchestrated the first five songs of the set with Vilém Zemánek tackling the remaining five. Kožená seem especially at home with these Psalms settings as Dvořák uses a Czech translation. I was immediately struck by the rich and opulent orchestration often infused with writing of a highly dramatic nature which could easily have come from a Puccini opera. The ten songs of the set predominantly exhibit Kožená’s flexible and extremely powerful mid-range. I particularly enjoyed the second song Skrýše má a pavéza má Ty jsi (You are my hiding place and my shield) with its calm and reflective opening before developing an acutely dark and near disturbing quality. She conveys a beseeching tone for the words Děsí se strachem před Tebou tělo mé (My flesh trembles for fear of you). In the third setting Slyš, o Bože, slyš modlitbu mou (Give ear to my prayer, O God) dark low strings are interspersed with fruity woodwind figures that at one point represent the dove mentioned in the text. The closing sentence beginning Pospíšil bych ujíti větru (I would hasten my escape) contains a disquieting and weighty climax. I loved the fourth song Hospodin jest můj pastýř (The Lord is my shepherd) with its merciful reverence revealed in Kožená’s smoky timbre and impressive diction. There are not too many recordings of the Biblical Songs. The single account I have contains only six of the set of ten songs and uses a German translation sung with palpable sensitivity by the famous baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who is accompanied by Jörg Demus. The Austro/German duo recorded the songs in 1960 at the Siemensvilla, Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon.
 
Next Kožená turns to Ravel’s orchestral song-cycle Shéhérazade that reveals the composer’s fascination with Eastern culture. The Basque-born Frenchman had already composed an overture titled Shéhérazade in 1898 and was clearly enamoured of the subject when five years later he set three poems for voice and orchestra by Tristan Klingsor the pseudonym of his friend Léon Leclère. Shéhérazade is a large collection Arabic poems inspired by the Middle-Eastern folktales known collectively as the Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights). In these perfumed, atmospheric settings Kožená achieves a substantial intensity. First comes the substantial Asie (Asia) lasting here just over ten minutes. Straightaway in this relaxed and dreamlike score one notices exotic, spicy sights and the sounds and smells of a journey through the orient. At 7:23 a heart-melting climax is reminiscent of Daphnis et Chloé. Fibrous arabesques on solo flute open the enchanting La flûte enchantée (The enchanted flute) together with other colourful woodwind contributions. Together the orchestration and Kožená’s voice evoke a sultry, rather languid mood. More vibrant woodwind figures are marked in L'indifférent (The indifferent one). Deliciously seductive singing from Kožená displays her excellent mid-range to mesmerising effect. Shéhérazade has some fine rival accounts in the catalogue including one from Susan Graham. Recorded in 2004 at the BBC Maida Vale Studios in London, Graham offers beauty of tone and expression with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier on Warner Classics. I also admire the recent 2012 Ondine release excellently sung by Véronique Gens, a native French singer, with John Axelrod conducting the Philharmonic Orchestra of Pays de la Loire. 

Mahler for his 1901/02 collection of five Rückert-Lieder set verses by the Franconian poet Friedrich Rückert. Unlike the song-cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) Mahler’s chosen verses are independent of each other, with no common theme. They concern various emotions namely love, death, life and loneliness. At the time of their compositionMahler was in a highly productive phase and was also working on his Symphony No. 5. The first of the fiveis Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) which is Mahler’s only love song; a message of his affection to his wife Alma. It is heard in the orchestration by Max Puttmann. Kožená clearly relishes this song. It certainly showcases her mellow smoky tone and bell-like quality. In the abrupt crescendo she leaps to the highest notes with passion rather than subtlety. Wonderfully played by the Berliners the orchestral accompaniment is most affecting. The very short Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look at my songs!) flows with a quirky lyricism. I adored Kožená’s clear articulation and the striking horn passage also warrants a mention. Wind figures decorate Um Mitternacht (At midnight, Summer) a rather grey almost creepy, anxiety-laden nocturne which concludes with thick dark textures. Unusually Mahler employs an orchestral piano. The writing spans this singer’s range with those lower reaches sounding a touch guttural at times. A powerful projection is required to cut through the thick orchestration and Kožená has this in spades. I was struck by the light rocking accompaniment in Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) especially the glorious short solo parts for oboe and flute and the sensitive playing from the horns. In quite enchanting voice Kožená maintains a smooth delivery that adds to the soothing nature of the writing. One of my favourite Mahler works is Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) a multi-faceted score full of world-weary introspection which feels like a miniature tone-poem. In this intensely melancholic writing Kožená communicates a real sense of yearning to moving effect which felt like a spiritual experience. Throughout her performance of these stunning Mahler orchestral songsthe impressive Kožená is in beguiling voice and seems to be living the music. Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder are exceptionally well served which is testimony to their quality. My collection contains what can now be described as highly recommendable ‘classic’ accounts from mezzo-sopranos Dame Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Brigitte Fassbaender, and another from baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. From 1969 at Watford Town Hall Dame Janet Baker accompanied by the New Philharmonia under Barbirolli is in splendid form, singing with fluidity and wonderful expression on EMI. At the Berlin Philharmonie in 1974 Christa Ludwig sings with eloquence and ravishing tonal beauty. Ludwig has the advantage of Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon. I also admire the 1993 silky smooth account sung by Anne-Sofie von Otter with the NDR Sinfonieorchester under John Eliot Gardiner. Otter recorded the Mahler songs live at the Großer Saal, Musikhalle, Hamburg for Deutsche Grammophon. For Fassbaender’s account she is joined by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under the Italian maestro Riccardo Chailly. Fassbaender’s fierily passionate performance was recorded in the marvellous acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem in 1989 for Decca. In 1963 Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded four of the five Rückert-Lieder with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Karl Böhm. Sadly Fischer-Dieskau and Böhm leave out Liebst du um Schönheit;the score which Mahler didn’t orchestrate. Using the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem Fischer-Dieskau blends eloquent control with rapt expression on the Deutsche Grammophon ‘Legendary Recordings’ series.
 
Kožená, the Berliner Phil and Rattle are in awesome form with Kožená benefiting from a warm, well balanced sound. I could not detect any unwanted audience noise and no applause has been left in. Full texts are included with English translation.
 
Michael Cookson

Masterwork Index: Rückert-Lieder
 
Track-List
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Biblické písně (Biblical Songs) for voice and orchestra, Op.99 (1894):
Oblak a mrákota jest vůkol něho (Clouds and darkness are round about him) [2:18]
Skrýše má a pavéza má Ty jsi (You are my hiding place and my shield) [2:06]
Slyš, ó Bože! Slyš modlitbu mou (Give ear to my prayer, O God) [3:35]
Hospodin jest můj pastýř (The Lord is my shepherd) [2:38]
Bože, Bože! píseň novou (I will sing a new song unto you, O God) [3:12]
Slyš, ó Bože, volání mé (Hear my cry, O God) [3:12]
Při řekách Babylonských (By the rivers of Babylon) [2:55]
Popatřiž na mne, a smiluj se nade mnou (Turn you unto me and have mercy upon me) [3:00]
Pozdvihuji očí svých k horám (I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills) [2:05]
Zpívejte Hospodinu píseň novou (Sing unto the Lord a new song) [2:07]

Maurice RAVEL
(1875-1937)
Shéhérazade, three poems for voice and orchestra on verses by Tristan Klingsor (1903)
Asie (Asia) [10:05] 
La flûte enchantée (The enchanted flute) [3:17]
L'indifférent (The indifferent one) [4:12]

Gustav MAHLER
(1860-1911)
Rückert-Lieder, five songs on poems by Friedrich Rückert (1901/02)
Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) [2:27]
Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look at my songs!) [1:30]
Um Mitternacht (At midnight, Summer) [5:54]
Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I breathed a gentle fragrance) [2:48]
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) [6:57] 

 


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