Magdalena Kožená sings songs by Shostakovich,
Schulhoff, Britten, Ravel, and Respighi.
For this, her second, song recital, Magdalena Kožená has put together an unusually wide-ranging programme - a consciously “composed" musical portrait of the first half of the 20th century: songs from five European countries representing five different cultures - and in five different languages (not including her native Czech). “Languages are of particular interest to me," says Magdalena Kožená, “because language is essentially bound up with singing. Unlike instrumentalists, we singers have to convey a linguistic message. We have to speak to the audience. And just as, on the one hand, the language is communicated to the audience, so, on the other, it influences the music." And it is this, the singer stresses, that is the most important aspect of her new song recital: she wants to show how each language shapes, forms, and colours the music in highly individual ways.
Shostakovich wrote his Five Satires op. 109 in 1960 for the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, the wife of the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. What may sound surprisingly succinct is in fact the most vicious grotesquerie. This embittered tone is furnished by Sasha Chorny's sarcastic words. Although these texts date from the pre-Revolutionary period, Shostakovich and his contemporaries had no difficulty in hearing in them a malicious and critical allusion to run-down Soviet realism. “This is most striking in the third song," says Magdalena Kožená: “There's always the same old promise that things will get better, although everyone knows very well that nothing is getting any better under Soviet rule. And in the piano accompaniment it sounds as if, bar by bar, someone is desperately beating his hand against a wall - it's hopeless." Angry songs, sad music, black humour, dull melancholy: “This reflects the Russian mentality! The Russians tend to be very sad, while at the same time appearing to enjoy this sadness."
Melancholy is also the keynote of Erwin Schulhoff's Drei Stimmungsbilder op. 12 from 1913. Schulhoff was born in Prague in 1894 and, like Magdalena Kožená, was Czech. His works are particularly close to her heart: “I was immediately fascinated by this little song cycle. They are atmospheric portraits and emotions that are familiar to me from my homeland, even if they are settings of German, rather than Czech, texts. In the intensity of their tone colours they remind me very much of the paintings of Egon Schiele. All the colours are so intense. At the same time, there is a veil of melancholy over them - and the solo violin plays around the soliloquizing voice as though it is its alter ego."
It is difficult to think of a starker contrast than that between Schulhoff's cycle and A Charm of Lullabies op. 41, which Britten wrote in 1947 for the mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans and which is one of his few solo vocal works within a span of twenty-five years that was not conceived expressly for the tenor voice of Peter Pears. “Even this is exceptional. But even more astonishing is the fact that Britten, who had neither children nor a family, could be inspired by these lullaby texts." They are correspondingly personal and in places so powerfully expressive that with the possible exception of the first song they have little in common with the traditional idea of lullabies. “In terms of their atmospheric content, these lullabies go far beyond the sort of cheerful verse used to send little children to sleep. But it is precisely this that makes them so intimate in their highly idiosyncratic way."
With Maurice Ravel's Chansons madécasses (1926) we enter yet another musical world - and one of which Magdalena Kožená is particularly fond. “Ravel is undoubtedly one of my favourite composers. With him, every note is in place; none of them is superfluous, none is missing. It's incredible! At the same time, Ravel likes playing with the notes, with each phrase, with each musical brush stroke." Here it is colours and shades that matter, especially the tone colours that Ravel coaxes from the flute, cello, and piano. But these songs are also notable for their humour. “It is Ravel's typical sense of humour, whereby a particular mood is abruptly shattered. The best example is the third song, in which an emotionally incomparably dense atmosphere is built up, so that the listener feels something like a hot shudder at the end. It is at this very moment that the mood suddenly shifts to one that could hardly be more prosaic: 'Allez, et préparez le repas!' (Go and prepare the meal)." In fact, Ravel wrote this cycle for male voice, a choice implied by Évariste-Désiré de Parny's words: “La belle Nahandove, ma jeune amie, tes baisers pénètrent jusqu'à l'âme (Beautiful Nahandove, my young female friend, your kisses transfix my soul)" and so on. “For me, these songs are extremely erotic! And why shouldn't I sing songs written for men? I've sung enough trouser roles on stage. I'm used to men's roles. Why shouldn't I do the same in lieder?"
Written in 1914 for voice and string quartet, Ottorino Respighi's Il tramonto has less to do with eroticism than with love, in this case unrequited love. Although Respighi made arguably the greatest contribution to Italian music since Puccini, the present song cycle is not, in Magdalena Kožená's view, really an example of Italian music. Rather, the singer sees parallels with Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. It is, moreover, very intimate music: “There's no discernible sense of ecstasy as there is with Puccini." And the vocal writing is not typical of Italian opera. Instead, it is integrated into the quartet writing, providing, as it were, a fifth voice that conducts a monologue with itself, while the string quartet expresses the inner sensitivities of the purely external narrative. “Although I have a text to sing, what matters is not the message, but the multiplicity of feelings and moods that these words evoke in the music and in our interpretation."
Magdalena Kožená - Chronology
1973 Born in the Czech city of Brno
Vocal and piano studies at Brno Conservatory with Neva Megová and Jirí Peša
Student of Eva Blahová at Bratislava Drama College
Prizewinner at the Sixth International Mozart Competition in Salzburg
Extensive tours of Japan and the USA
Dorabella (Così fan tutte/Mozart) at the Janácek Theatre in Brno
Annio (La clemenza di Tito/Mozart) at the Vienna Volksoper
CD: J. S. Bach: Arias/Musica Florea, Štryncl (DG/Archiv 457 367-2; Harmonie Award in the Czech Republic: “CD of the Year")
Isabella (L'italiana in Algeri/Rossini) at the Janácek Theatre in Brno
Hermia (A Midsummer Night's Dream/Britten) at the Vienna Volksoper
Paride (Paride ed Elena/Gluck) at the Drottningholm Festival
Idamante (Idomeneo/Mozart) for Flanders Opera under Marc Minkowski
Beginning of collaboration with pianist Graham Johnson
Orphée (Orphée et Eurydice/Gluck) at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris,
under Sir John Eliot Gardiner, directed by Robert Wilson
Nerone (L'incoronazione di Poppea/Monteverdi) at the Vienna and
Aix-en-Provence Festivals under Marc Minkowski
CDs: J. S. Bach: Whitsun Cantatas/English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner (DG/Archiv 463 584-2)
Handel: Dixit Dominus; Salve Regina etc./Les Musiciens du Louvre, Minkowski (DG/Archiv 459 627-2)
Rameau: Dardanus/Les Musiciens du Louvre, Minkowski (DG/Archiv
463 476-2; Diapason d'or 2000, Record Academy Prize, Tokyo, 2001) Love Songs: Songs by Dvorák, Janácek, Martinù/Graham Johnson
(DG 463 472-2; Gramophone Award 2001)
Sesto (La clemenza di Tito/Mozart) at the Edinburgh Festival
Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande/Debussy) at the Leipzig Opera
Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro/Mozart) at the Aix-en-Provence and
Baden-Baden Festivals under Marc Minkowski Echo Klassik prizewinner 2000: “Best New Artist"
CDs: J. S. Bach: Cantatas/English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner
(DG/Archiv 463 591-2)
Handel: Italian Cantatas/Les Musiciens du Louvre, Minkowski
(DG/Archiv 469 065-2)
Sesto (Giulio Cesare/Handel) at the Netherlands Opera under Marc Minkowski
Soloist (St. Matthew Passion/Bach) with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players in London, Lisbon, Munich, Aldeburgh
Performances with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra under Marc Minkowski
in Ferrara and at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, as Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande/Debussy)
At the Salzburg Festival Zerlina (Don Giovanni/Mozart) under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mozart's C minor Mass and Thamos music, and the Fauré Requiem under Minkowski
European recital tour with pianist Malcolm Martineau in London, Paris, Antwerp, Prague, Steensgard (Denmark), at the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg (Austria), in Hamburg, and Helsinki
CDs: Arias by Gluck, Mozart, Myslivecek/Prague Philharmonia, Swierczewski (DG 471 334-2; Echo Klassik Award 2002), Messiah/Les Musiciens du Louvre, Minkowski (DG/Archiv 471 341-2)
Les Musiciens du Louvre 20th Anniversary Concert with Minkowski at the Châtelet in Paris
Wigmore Hall recital and tour of Japan with Malcolm Martineau
Idamante in Peter Sellars's production of Idomeneo at Glyndebourne, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
Other summer festival appearances include Mostly Mozart in London at the Barbican, Verbier, Utrecht Festival of Early Music (Handel recital with countertenor Thierry Grégoire), Schubertiade Schwarzenberg (recital with Malcolm Martineau)
CDs: J. S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion/Gabrieli Players, McCreesh
(DG/Archiv 474 200-2)
Handel: Giulio Cesare/Les Musiciens du Louvre, Minkowski
(DG/Archiv 474 210-2)
French Opera Arias/Les Musiciens du Louvre, Minkowski (DG 474 214-2)
Performances of Idomeneo with Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin, Lucerne, and at the Salzburg Easter Festival
London, Paris, and Lisbon concert performances, and Archiv recording of Gluck's Paride ed Elena with McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players
Cherubino at the Met and Bavarian State Opera, Dorabella at the Salzburg Easter Festival
Extensive recital tours of the USA and Europe including New York's Carnegie Hall, London's Wigmore Hall, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw
CDs: A recital disc with Malcolm Martineau of song cycles by Britten, Ravel, Respighi, Schulhoff, and Shostakovich (DG 471 581-2); also recorded in 2003 for release later: Bachiana III - arias, cantatas, and scenes by the Bach Family, with Reinhard Goebel and Musica Antiqua Köln
The new season begins with her Dorabella at San Francisco Opera and Kátya Kabanová at the Met