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Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Wolfram Brandl (violin), Rahel Rilling (violin), Yulia Deyneka (viola), David Adorjan (cello), Andrew Marriner (clarinet), Kaspar Zehnder (flute), Sir Simon Rattle (piano)
rec. 2017, Meistersaal, Berlin
Full sung texts with English translations in booklet
PENTATONE PTC5186671 SACD [73:24]

Soirée, Magdalena Kožená’s second album for Pentatone, has turned to the relaxed, intimate atmosphere of the salon or parlour. Kožená has selected thirty songs from the pens of Chausson, Dvořák, Brahms, Stravinsky, Ravel, Janáček and Richard Strauss. Her chamber accompaniment is a combination of string quartet, clarinet, flute and the piano (played by her husband Simon Rattle). Most of the songs are sung in their original chamber scoring. Dvořák’s seven songs have been arranged especially for this project, and Brahms’s Ophelia Songs are presented in Aribert Reimann’s arrangement.

I must single out Chanson perpétuelle from 1898 by Chausson, a composer who died well before his time. It was the Parisian’s last completed work. The seven-and-a-half-minute mélodie is performed here in the version for mezzo-soprano, string quartet and piano. The setting of words from a poem by Charles Cros describes the range of emotions and feelings of an abandoned woman. Chausson’s soundworld suits Kožená perfectly She sings sensitively, and is inexorably attuned to the reflective and melancholic character of the text. Unquestionably, the best-known recording of Chanson perpétuelle using this chamber version is the justly celebrated account by soprano Jessye Norman with pianist Michel Dalberto and Monte-Carlo String Quartet (released in 1983 on Erato, reissued on Warner Classics - Apex). The American soprano’s performance is rightly lauded for the outstanding atmosphere but, for my taste, her vibrato can be distracting, and her pronunciation of the French texts just a touch awkward.

Ravel is represented by the three art songs, completed in 1926, that comprise Chansons madécasses (Madagascan songs) scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, cello and piano to the text taken from Évariste de Parny’s collection of poems. Kožená is in her element. She communicates the import of the words with ease, assuredly responding to the elusive shifts of tone colour.

Kožená has also selected Dvořák’s seven songs that Duncan Ward has specially arranged for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano. Four are taken from the set of Gypsy Songs, Op. 55, two from In Folk Tone, Op. 73, and a single love song from Cypresses, B.11. Kožená clearly relishes the opportunity to sing in Czech, her native language. She demonstrates her natural style, communicating the text with ease.

In a vein similar to Dvořák’s songs is Janáček’s set of eight Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) for mezzo-soprano, clarinet and piano. They use a mixture of folk tale texts from Bohemia, Moravia and Ruthenia. Once again singing in Czech, Kožená enters fully into the spirit of these extremely brief, but quirky and engaging, folk songs that brim over with rhythm and colour. A couple of the songs even have raucous vocal contributions from the other performers.

Brahms in his Zwei Gesänge (Two Songs), Op. 91 has set poems by Friedrich Rückert and Emanuel Geibel after Lope de Vega. Kožená, accompanied by viola and piano, sings beautifully in Gestillte Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied. Included, too, are Brahms’s Ophelia Songs based on Shakespeare texts in a German translation. They written for a production of Hamlet where Ophelia sings in act four, scene five. Probably not my favourite cycle, but Kožená is very comfortable with German Lieder. She communicates the text with beauty and suitable restraint.

For some, Kožená’s inclusion of Stravinsky’s Three Songs from William Shakespeare for its use of twelve-tone technique might seem out of step with the other repertoire chosen for the album. Written in 1953, these three song settings in English from Shakespeare’s Sonnet VIII, The Tempest and Love’s Labour’s Lost are scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet and viola. To take around seven minutes to perform Stravinsky is to experiment here with serial music. Thye songs add variety to the collection. I do not find them incongruous, and I am glad they are included even if they may require the listener’s additional concentration. Kožená compellingly conveys the cool, stark beauty of the songs, with absolute clarity and assurance.

Richard Strauss’s renowned Morgen! (Tomorrow!) concludes Soirée. Kožená has selected the version for mezzo-soprano, violin and piano. She performs this John Henry Mackay Lieder setting exquisitely, encapsulating great beauty and strong emotional intensity in just four minutes.

Kožená is very much at home in this repertoire. Her beautifully produced, glowing tone absorbingly catches the predominantly fleeting moods of these parlour songs. She is accompanied by a mix of seven instrumentalists, whose playing is first-rate; that includes Rattle in his recording debut as a pianist. Soirée was not recorded in the Rattle household but under studio conditions, using the renowned acoustics of Meistersaal, Berlin. The sound engineers for Pentatone provide remarkable clarity and satisfying balance on this hybrid SACD (I reviewed it on my standard player). In the booklet, Kožená gives a short foreword. The essay by James Parsons is helpful and easy to read. I am grateful for the full sung texts with English translations in the booklet.

Magdalena Kožená is at her most engaging in this exquisitely performed chamber collection of songs.
Michael Cookson
Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
1. Chanson perpétuelle (Perpetual Song), for mezzo-soprano, string quartet & piano, Op. 37 (1898) [7:25]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) / arranged Duncan WARD (b. 1989)
Selection of 7 songs arranged for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, string quartet & piano
Gypsy Songs, Op. 55, B. 104 (1880)
2. Má píseň zas mi láskou zní (My song resounds with love) [2:42]
3. Širokými rukávy (Wide sleeves) [1:24]
Cypresses, B.11: No. 11 (1865)
4. Mé srdce často (My heart is often in pain) [3:20]
In Folk Tone, Op. 73, No. 2, B. 146 (1886)
5. Žalo dievča (The moweress) [1:53]
Gypsy Songs, Op. 55, B. 104 (1880)
6. Když mne stará matka (When my mother taught me) [2:40]
7. Struna naladěna (The strings are tuned) [1:05]
In Folk Tone, Op. 73, No. 1, B. 146 (1886):
8. Dobrú noc (Good night) [3:19]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Zwei Gesänge (Two Songs), for mezzo-soprano, viola & piano, Op. 91 (1884)
9. Gestillte Sehnsucht [6:19]
10. Geistliches Wiegenlied [5:12]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Three Songs from William Shakespeare, for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet and viola (1953)
11. Musick to heare [2:50]
12. Full fadom five [1:52]
13. When Daisies pied [2:05]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Chansons madécasses (Madagascan songs), for mezzo-soprano, flute, cello & piano, M. 78 (1925/26)
14. Nahandove [6:10]
15. Aoua! (Awa!) [4:01]
16. Il est doux (It is pleasing) [4:21]
Johannes BRAHMS / arranged by Aribert REIMANN (b. 1936)
Ophelia Songs, WoO 22 (1873) (arranged for mezzo-soprano & string quartet by Reimann 1997)
17. Wie erkenn’ ich dein Treulieb (How will I know your true love) [0:58]
18. Sein Leichenhemd weiß wie Schnee (White his shroud as the mountain snow) [0:30]
19. Auf morgen ist Sankt Valentins Tag (Tomorrow is St. Valentines’s day) [0:57]
20. Sie tragen ihn auf der Bahre bloß (They carried him on a bier) [1:05]
21. Und kommt er nicht mehr zurück? (So won’t he ever come back?) [1:54]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) for mezzo-soprano, clarinet & piano (1925)
22. Leze krtek podle meze (The mole creeps) [1:08]
23. Karel do pekla zajel (Karel rode off to hell) [0:35]
24. Franta rasůl hrálna basu (Franta Rasul playing bass) [1:03]
25. Dĕlám, dĕlám kázání (Children, hear my sermon) [1:06]
26. Hó, hó, krávy dó (Ho, ho, off the cows go) [1:03]
27. Kozabílá hrušky sbírá (The white goat’s picking up the pears) [0:39]
28. Vašek, pašek (Vacek, scallywag) [0:37]
29. Frantíku, frantíku (Frantik, Frantik) [0:32]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
30. Morgen! (Tomorrow!), Op. 27, No. 4 (1894) for mezzo-soprano, violin & piano [4:01]

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