Magdalena Kožená’s Recital at the Wigmore Hall: A Mixed Pleasure

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Wolf, Dvořák, Schoenberg: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 5.10.2015 (MB)

SchumannGedichte der Königin Maria Stuart

Wolf – Selection from Mörike-Lieder: ‘Begegnung’, ‘Neue Liebe’, ‘Nimmersatte Liebe’, ‘Das verlassene Mägdlein’, ‘Elfenlied’, ‘Verborgenheit’, ‘Wo find ich Trost?’, Auf ein altes Bild’, ‘Lebe wohl’, ‘Nixe Binsefuß’, ‘Abschied’

DvořákLove Songs, op.83


Magdalena Kožená seems to be an increasingly controversial artist. I did not hear the Proms Dream of Gerontius, conducted by her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, but much comment focused upon her assumption of the role of the Angel. Some of what was said then seemed relevant to this recital, especially its first half. I was less troubled by the overt emotionalism of her singing; such matters are to a considerable degree a matter of taste. However, there was an unvariegated stridency to much, although not all, of this first half to which I found it difficult to warm, especially when contrasted with the unerring rightness of Mitsuko Uchida’s piano-playing.

Schumann’s late Geidchte der Königin Maria Stuart are unquestionably a case of ‘less is more’. Not, alas, so here, at least vocally, ‘Abschied von der Welt’ sounding more like a refugee from the opera house, although the declamatory approach to ‘Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes’ had worked better. Uchida’s way with Schumann’s piano writing, however, was in quite a different class, as careful, as meaningful, as connected, as if she had been playing his solo music. Indeed, connections with earlier music – the C major Arabeske, for instance, or indeed, Bach’s 48 – announced themselves straight away. In the final ‘Gebet’, it was the piano harmony that told, encasing – not unlike Robin Holloway’s Reliquary for the same songs – the Queen’s plea to the Almighty, preparing the way for that dreadful, sombre close.

The selection from Wolf’s Mörike-Lieder opened in urgent contrast, at least so far as the piano was concerned, with ‘Begegnung’. To begin with, that was less in evidence vocally, but Kožená captured its later cheekiness well. The planning of the sequence impressed too, with a weightier, more metaphysical note struck in the following ‘Neue Liebe,’ ‘Nimmersatte Liebe’ bringing together qualities from both of its predecessors. Moreover, the opening harmonies of the latter song seemed to prefigure some of those to be heard in Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder. Uchida’s piano chimes in ‘Elfenlied’ had one gasp for their melting tone as piano music at least as much as for their pictorial quality, whilst the combination of exquisite sadness and true strength in ‘Wo find ich Trost?’ seemed just right. Kožená by contrast, seemed too ‘public’, at times downright shrill. Musical continuity was once again very much the province of the piano part in the final ‘Abschied’, whose harmonies not for the first time brought Wagner as well as Schoenberg to mind.

Dvořák’s Love Songs and their simpler style seemed far better suited to Kožená. With respect to language, I can say little more than that it sounded right. Doubtless those with Czech would be able to say much more concerning what she did with the words, but my impression was that it was a good deal, without it being too much. There was certainly a far more variegated vocal line in, for instance, ‘V tak mnohém srdci mrtvo jest’ (‘Death dwells in so many a heart’), its final line in particular. Uchida’s pellucid tone for the arpeggios and their variants in the closing ‘Ó, duše drahá, jedinká’ (‘O dear matchless soul’) would have justified attendance in itself.

Shorn of my favourite ‘Nachtwandler’, which requires additional piccolo, trumpet, and snare drum’, Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder nevertheless packed quite a punch. Again, Kožená seemed quite in her element, words, music, words-and-music full of incident, of fun, of ‘life’; Uchida put all of her Schoenbergian experience, lightly worn, to splendid effect. (I cannot for a moment concur with Misha Donat’s claim in his programme note that these songs ‘would be of no more than marginal interest were it not for the fact that out of them grew … Pierrot lunaire.’) The knowing heaviness in ‘Einfältiges Lied’ showed a true meeting of performers’ minds (and the composer’s too). ‘Mahnung’ tilted more towards outright cabaret, Kožená’s voice often coloured by tuning, and not afraid either to shun conventional ‘beauty’ or to speak rather than sing. That tendency was taken still further in the final Schikander aria, a highly ‘masculine’ rendition of certain stanzas and lines not the least of Kožená’s surprises. Janáček’s ‘Lavečka’ was the deceptively simple, profoundly moving encore.

Mark Berry

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