Magdalena Kožená in Recital: Beautiful Programming and Some Truly Ravishing Performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ravel, Haydn, Bartók:  Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) with Kaspar Zehnder (flute) and Tomáš Jamnik (cello). Barbican Hall, London, 8.5.2013 (CC)

Ravel:             Histoires naturelles
Deux Mélodies hébraïques
Chansons madécasses
Haydn:           Arianna a Naxos
Bartók:           Village Scenes

Recitals by Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená are always highly anticipated. She has thrilled in this venue before, most notably perhaps in the title role of Martinů’s Juliette back in 2009 but also in a thrilling baroque evening with Il Giardino Armonico (2006) while she fascinated and intrigued in an evening of music from her homeland in 2008. The present recital was not to be quite up to those standards, but was a fascinating evening nonetheless.

The Histoires naturelles (1906), on poetry by Jules Renard, began the all-Ravel first half. Written for soprano Jane Bathori, the set is typical of its composer in its concision. Each note is carefully placed like the finest jewel. The partnership of Kožená and Martineau showed all its strengths here, with Martineau’s introduction ravishingly delivered, and Kožená’s grasp of the text magnificent. Noteworthy were the affecting sigh on “L’amour”, shortly after the vocal opening-out on the word “glorieux”. A pity the audience applauded at the end of this song – and pretty much every other one – interrupting the trajectory of the set; certainly, Martineau’s glacial tone for the opening of the second song, “Le grillon” (The Cricket) would have been even more ravishing without the distraction. All credit to the performers for instantaneously re-entering Ravel’s exquisite, rarified world and achieving a real feeling of stasis at the words “Il se repose”.

A similar problem with the applause and Ravel’s plan occurred between this and the ensuing “Le cygne” (The Swan), where Martineau’s shimmering arpeggios provided a gossamer backdrop for  Kožená’s magical line, Hearing her live, it was notable that she does not record well and to experience the true special qualities of her voice, one really should hear her in person. It was nice to have the wit of the end of this song honoured, and contrasting with the held-breath delicacy of “Le martin-pêcheur” (The Kingfisher). The final “Le pintode” (The Guinea Fowl), with its cheeky chirrupings, seemed the perfect end.

Tomáš Jamnik’s cello sang mournfully and for an extended period at the opening of “Kaddish”, the first of the Deux Mélodies hébraïques (1914). The spare, bare textures – the piano accompaniment is restrained – cast a spell that enshrouded Kožená’s burnished mezzo. The performance was beautifully rapt; the enigmatic second part, “L’enigme éternelle” was disconcertingly sparse; Kožená shaped the melody beautifully and sensitively. The programme planning was faultless: this was the perfect contrast to the first group. To finish the Ravel part of the evening, we heard the more famous Chansons madécasses. for voice, flute, cello and piano. Jamnik’s plaintive cello duetting with Kožená created its own spell; the addition of Kaspar Zehnder’s flute enabled the music to rise to a higher, more exultant plane. The violent “Aoua!” that followed could hardly be more contrasting. Opening with Ravel at his most acerbic, it descended into murky, dark waters, the atmosphere at its end broken cruelly by clapping from someone whose sole purpose was presumably to prove that (s)he knew that the song had come to an end. The performers were laudably unfazed; the cello harmonics of the final “Il est doux” (It is sweet) were perfectly judged and the music still brought hypnosis with it.

The idea of juxtaposing Ravel with Haydn was genius. Arianna a Naxos can be a long grind in the wrong hands and with the wrong voice. Both voice and piano were perfectly suited here. This particular abandoned woman’s vocal entrance was perfectly set up by Martineau’s stylish playing.  Kožená’s credentials in early music are impeccable, and her vocal acting was magnificently managed – the finger wagging she indulged in at one point was unnecessary. But there was some air around her voice, also, which was a little distracting; on the plus side, she scaled down her voice for Haydn yet still managed to convey the piece’s dramatic scope.

Finally, Bartók’s Village Scenes (1924), songs that celebrate village life. The musical folk sources are Slovak in this instance, and the composer’s crunchily rustic evocations of the first song, “Pri hrabani” (Haymaking) gave little clue as to the sudden warmth that arrives at the song’s end. What really impressed in this performance was how both performers could convey beauty in simplicity (“Pri neveste”, At the bride’s). Martineau’s evocation of the Lullaby fourth song was astonishing, particularly in his cloud of sound fourth stanza; balancing this was Kožená’s superb control and repose at the song’s close. The almost raucous final “Tanec mládencov” (Lads’ Dance) topped a performance of great character.

Two encores: the radiant Dvořák song, “Mé srdce často” (from Op. 2) and the famous “Musikanti” by Janáček. A fascinating evening: beautiful programming containing some truly ravishing performances.

Colin Clarke