V národním tónu Op.73
Four French folksongs
Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Detskaya (The Nursery)
Magdalena Koená (mezzo-soprano) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Reviewed by: William Yeoman
Reviewed: 8 June, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Magdalena Kožená began her recital with two sets of songs by fellow Czechs: Martinů’s “Nový Spalíček” (The New Chapbook) and Dvořák’s “V národním tónu” (In Folk Tone). The former consists of Moravian folk texts sequenced and set with an ear for variety and dramatic contrasts; the latter comprises settings of three Moravian texts and one Bohemian folk poem. Still ‘in folk tone’, Kožená then pesented four of Britten’s folk song settings from his “Eight Chansons Populaires” of 1942.
Following the interval was a dramatic change of mood with Ravel’s “Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé”, the accompaniment originally scored for the Stravinsky-influenced combination of voice, piccolo, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, string quartet and piano was heard in the composer’s own piano version. The same composer’s “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” (his final composition) followed – an unusual choice for Kožená given the songs are intended for a bass voice. She ended her recital with Mussorgsky’s “Detskaya” (The Nursery), a masterpiece of syllabic word-setting and childhood evocation.
The performances were near flawless, Kožená bringing the full extent of her technical and expressive gifts to bear on every song. Martinů’s “Nový Spalíček” showed Kožená’s talent for finding the emotional temper of each poem and supporting her vocal delivery with just the right physical and facial gestures; the Dvořák included moments of exquisite tenderness made explicit by subtle dynamic and timbral shading. The Britten was nearly as successful; the interpretation might have benefited from a ‘straighter’, simpler approach. Ravel’s Mallarmé settings brought not only a more expansive emotional range but also a larger tonal palette. These really are exquisite songs and, especially in “Soupir”, Kožená managed to tap into the dark, sensuous mystery of Mallarmé’s poetry by exploiting the expressive possibilities to the full. “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée”, while marvellously done (especially “Chanson à boire”), struck me as a little odd, Kožená having to dig deep at the lower end of her range and force the darkness a little, although this did add to the ironic nature of the material. The Mussorgsky was, by contrast, excellent, with some of Kožená’s best characterisations reserved for the nanny, the little boy and his mother.
Malcolm Martineau proved the ideal partner: alive to the dance rhythms in the Martinů, ultra-sensitive in the Dvořák, a true colourist in the Ravel and a real showman in the Mussorgsky. In “Poyekhal na Palochke” (Hobby-horse Rider) he followed his galloping hands with his eyes as they ran off the end of the keyboard and (seemingly) into the distance. A wonderful comic touch.