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Koena’s Pentalingual Recital



As I’ve very slowly been building my art song collection, I’ve become exposed to more and more pieces by composers I otherwise know well, and hence my understanding and appreciation of said composers has been enhanced. The glorious Christine Schäfer aside, I haven’t really purchased any song recitals based primarily on the singer, but rather I have focused on the composers and repertoire. But wouldn’t you know it, there are a few other singers where I’ve amassed small but growing collections. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and his Schubert recordings obviously come to mind, and, for some reason, Susan Graham is now more prevalent in my collection, and so now is the DG marketing juggernaut Magdalena Koźena. First I picked up her Czech song recital, and while it has its charms, it lacks something. This impression was only reinforced when I bought the wonderful Dvorak recital by the great Czechs Gabriela Beneckova and Rudolf Firkusny. Ms Koźena seemed quite wanting in comparison. Much better, for two-thirds of the disc, is her Mozart-Myslevicek-Gluck aria disc. Gluck ain’t so hot, but her Mozart and especially her Myslevicek are exceptional. So I figured it was time to give her five composer, five language recital disc a shot. At least all of the works – the Schulhoff excepted – would be new to me.

The disc opens with the strongest work: Maurice Ravel’s Chansons madécasses. The delightful texts by Evariste-Désiré de Parny make for a nice read, the sumptuous and exotic music furnished by Ravel a perfect backdrop. Rather than rely merely on a piano, Morris decides to add a bit more color by using a cello and flute. This allows for a wide variety of oh-so-enticing sounds to emerge, with the delicate flute supporting lines here and there with that delicate grace only this wind can, and the cello digs in to add some oomph (but never, ever too much). Koźena sings quite well. If, perhaps, some can sing with more precise diction or with an even smoother flow, she does a fine job bringing the music to life. After my first listen, I must say that I like this piece at least as much as Scheherazade. I do believe I will look into other versions of this work, and I will definitely listen tomorrow at work.

The next work is DSCH’s Satires. The music is bitter, brittle, and, well, sarcastic. Koźena and Malcolm Martineau play the thing relatively dark and serious, and Koźena has less difficulty navigating the Russian texts. The texts are quite bizarre and grotesque at times, and always entertaining. After listening straight through, I was relatively impressed, but, as luck would have it, I also bought the 1967 Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya live recording on Yedang. Since the work was written specifically for Vishnevskaya, one might expect her to have a better command of the piece. She does. She and her hubby present the pieces in a more bitterly ironic way, with some jagged humor, but humor nonetheless. It won’t lift the spirits, but it shows a mastery that eludes Koźena. (Since the work is meant for a soprano, that may be another reason for the Russian’s superiority.) Of course, it’s unfair to expect such mastery from the young Czech, and taken on its own, it’s very good.

The next work marks the very first recording of any work by Ottorino Respighi that I’ve ever bought. I’ve heard a number of the Italian’s works, I’ve just never had a hankerin’ to buy any. Anyhoo, the work is the fifteen minute, Italian language setting of Shelley’s The Sunset for mezzo and string quartet. The text is the most inspired of the bunch, even if it’s not Shelley’s best, and the music is quite good, except, well, except it’s too long, too melodramatic, and ultimately not melancholy enough for a piece involving unrequited love and death. The strings play some romantic stuff, but I was hoping for something more searching. There are some truly lovely passages, so not all is lost. Hey, at least I can reread the text.

The next work has me puzzled. Schulhoff’s tiny, German language song “cycle” Drei Stimmungsbilder (Three Atmospheric Portraits) rely on not only the singer (with soprano specified), but a violin and piano. Nothing too confusing thus far, but wait! My Supraphon recording of this work includes only the first and third pieces, because the second piece - Schliesse deine Augen zu - was also used, without violin, in a more comprehensive setting of poems by Hans Steiger. But then the third of the three pieces – Weisst du – was also set twice, once in the little Op 12 set and once in the larger set. It seems there may be some confusion as to what was set to what, and indeed, who even wrote the texts. Well, the just over five minutes sure is nice to listen to. It’s not exactly the meatiest stuff around, but as a Schulhoff devotee, I’ll take it. As to performances, Koźena sings extremely well, certainly better than Olga Černa on Supraphon, but the accompaniment on the Czech recording is far more Schulhoffian. On the DG recording it sounds direct and somewhat aloof, whereas the Czechs bring bounce, energy, and that early proto-jazz sound that so permeates the underrated composer’s works. So, a success, but a qualified one.

The last work on the disc is Benjamin Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies. Koźena sings English quite well, even though it’s obviously not her first language. She tends to accent certain syllables and words in a way that a native speaker would not. (I can’t imagine that Britten notated it the way she sings it.) The songs don’t exactly rise to the level of Schubert or Debussy or Ravel – they are lullabies after all – but they make an interesting and intriguing closer.

So, here’s a disc that starts extremely strongly, and maintains a high level of accomplishment throughout. If better versions of some (or probably all) of the works are available, the program itself is intriguing enough to keep one listening, and it certainly shows that Koźena has potential. Perhaps her next recital (or, dare we hope, opera) recording will finally show her in all her glory. Sound is close but otherwise excellent.

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