Kožená and Bronfman at Edinburgh: diverse, intelligent, communicative, highly musical

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022 [14] – Brahms, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Bartók: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Yefim Bronfman (piano). Queen’s Hall, 26.8.2022. (SRT)

Magdalena Kožená © Harald Hoffmann

Brahms – Selection of songs
Mussorgsky – The Nursery
Bartók – Village Scenes

This was a lovely concert: diverse, intelligent, communicative, highly musical; in short, everything that a song recital should be.

Magdalena Kožená has been a consistent guest at the Edinburgh International Festival over the last few years, and she is a first-rate recitalist. The voice is pure and clean without being sterile, inhabiting the mezzo range beautifully, and using the words of the song to fantastic effect. Yefim Bronfman is an excellent partner for her, something that was repeatedly evident in their choice of fourteen songs by Brahms. Each of them was treated like a miniature drama, Kožená bringing every word and phrase to life, be it in the dark melancholy of O wüsst ich doch den Weg züruck or the blithe comedy of Vergebliches Ständchen. Bronfman’s piano line could provide illustrative comment, be it in the twittering birdsong of Nachtigall and Das Mädchen spricht, or the rolling waves of Verzagen and Meerfahrt. He could even undermine the suggestions of the words, such as in Ausklänge, where the lonely piano suggests that the girl spinning her wedding dress doesn’t really have all that much to look forward to.

Strong as she was in Brahms, though, it was in the Slavic songs where Kožená really came into her own, perhaps because the consonant-heavy Czech language of her mother tongue makes it easier for her to get inside Russian and Hungarian, too.

Mussorgsky’s disregard for the rules of form and harmony are part of his unique appeal, and that style lends itself particularly well to The Nursery, songs about the untrammelled emotions of childhood, not yet constrained by adult awareness. Kožená knew just how to shape them, firing out stresses at key points to highlight the drama or the comedy. In Shostakovich’s Satires the vocal line was brash, comic, even light at times, while the sinister restlessness of the piano line showed us that bleak darkness hides not very far below the surface of these lines.

I couldn’t tell whether it was thanks to the music or to the use of the Hungarian language, but Kožená’s voice darkened noticeably in tone for Bartók’s Village Scenes. It was rawer, emphasising that these are, at heart, peasant songs, and she did some raw, almost animalistic vocalising during the wedding song. Richness entered the voice in a rather moving way for the love songs, though, and Bronfman’s virtuosity was put to the toughest test of the morning in the concluding Lads’ Dance, with its whirling stream of chromaticisms. Janáček’s The Bench, simple and strophic, provided an emotional easing down as a final encore.

Simon Thompson

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen again on BBC Sounds until 24th September 2022. The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 28th August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.

Leave a Comment