Brahms
Madchenlied, Opp.85/3, 95/6 & 107/5
Das Madchen, Op.95/1
Das Madchen Spricht, Op.107/3
Madchenfluh, Op.69/9
Ravel
Histoires Naturelles (Le paon; Le grillon; Le cygne; Le martin-pecheur; Le pintade)
Dvorak
I dreamt last night, Op.3/2
Four Songs, Op.2 (You heartfelt songs; Oh, that was a beautiful, golden dream; In pain, my heart often broods; Silence on the mountains)
Janacek
Moravian Folk Poetry (My lover’s horses; Little posy; A lover’s picture; Parting; Constancy)

Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

17th December 2001
Just for once, I would like to be confounded when I go to a concert, not merely surprised. One often hears performers who are better or worse than expected – but imagine, say, a singer who is uninteresting in their native repertoire yet idiomatic in something quite foreign. Well, no such surprises today! Magdalena Kozena’s recital was both wonderful, and predictably so. Indeed, the only untoward occurrence was a power-cut. The concert took place with wartime-style emergency lighting, banishing Radio 3’s Stephanie Hughes to a self-contained, outside-broadcast location. Miss Kozena and the exemplary Malcolm Martineau preserved admirable composure as the house lights flickered during the Slavonic songs.
Kozena is currently blazing a bright trail in the mezzo firmament. With endlessly creamy sound, absolute ease of tone production, and just enough of a theatrical element, it’s easy to understand why. She took a serious, almost operatic view of Brahms. This was the Brahms of A German Requiem, not the Deutsche Volkslieder, making the most of dramatic contrast – as at the sad conclusion to the spinning-song (Op.107/5), the stretching-out of the final phrase of Op.85/3, and the pictorial rendition of “Wennich wuste, du mein weisses Antlitz” (Op.95/1).
Rather than emphasise the concentration and density of late Brahms, there were times when greater ease and playfulness would have been preferred. ’Das Madchen spricht’, though light enough, was more declamatory than teasing; ’The Maiden’s Curse’ (Op.69/9) was notable for genuine outrage than ironic humour, which is the true subject of the poem. As for Martineau, he was impeccable. Witness the expert imitation of the spinning wheel (Op.107/5) or his wit in Op.107/3; he was impressively atmospheric in ’Le grillon’, or in imitating the shimmer of water in ’Le cygne’.
Kozena’s Ravel was carefully prepared and convincingly delivered. Here was scope for her operatic inclinations – in the rhetoric and busy-bodying of ’the guinea fowl’, and the staccato imitation of it legs running around the farmyard, or in the preening and raucous cry of ’the peacock’. There were perfectly turned moments too, most notably the evocation of stillness for the appearance of ’the kingfisher’. If the renditions lacked the last degree of idiomatic conviction, it was hard to isolate why.
Until the next group … However good the Ravel, the all-important difference was instantly apparent with Dvorak’s songs – she was on her own territory, entirely inside the music. ’I dreamt last night’, which cannot be well known, emerged as a major love song. Throughout the Op.2 set there was a naturalness and authenticity that made the Ravel, in retrospect, seem over-studied. Dvorak’s settings are straightforwardly Romantic vehicles of love themes – distance, absence, loss, nature and dreams; from Kozena they are worth their place in the repertoire as much as the German favourites they resemble.
Janacek was a great collector of folk songs. During 1892 to 1901 he arranged fifty-three, the piano accompaniments intended to reveal each song’s “characteristic motif”. These accompaniments are frequently pictorial, the horses in the first song for example. For these selections from her native Moravia, Kozena perceptibly relaxed. If, at the start of her recital, she was over-serious, the final Janacek song, ’Constancy’, redressed the balance, which allowed Kozena to end on exactly the right note – mixing simplicity of emotion, artfulness of composition and lyrical beauty of sound with a dramatic edge.

 

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