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Czech Songs: Martinu, Dvorak, Krasa & Klein

The Europadisc Review

Czech Songs: Martinu, Dvorak, Krasa & Klein

Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano ), Czech Philharmonic

Ł12.69

Since her recorded debut in the mid-1990s, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená’s career has taken in everything from Baroque arias and scenas to large-scale opera and oratorio. Even as her live performances have become scarcer, the art of song has remained central to her career, as have periodic visits to the music of her Czech homeland. Her latest album for the Pentatone label – in partnership with her husband Simon Rattle, at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic of which he is principal guest conductor – is of Czech orchestral songs, encompassing bo... read more

Since her recorded debut in the mid-1990s, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená’s career has taken in everything from Baroque arias and scenas to large-scale opera and oratorio. Even as her live performance... read more

Czech Songs: Martinu, Dvorak, Krasa & Klein

Czech Songs: Martinu, Dvorak, Krasa & Klein

Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kozena (mezzo-soprano ), Czech Philharmonic

Since her recorded debut in the mid-1990s, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená’s career has taken in everything from Baroque arias and scenas to large-scale opera and oratorio. Even as her live performances have become scarcer, the art of song has remained central to her career, as have periodic visits to the music of her Czech homeland. Her latest album for the Pentatone label – in partnership with her husband Simon Rattle, at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic of which he is principal guest conductor – is of Czech orchestral songs, encompassing both original works and arrangements.

The four featured composers include two you’d expect – Dvořák and Mártinů – as well as a couple of surprises in the form of Hans Krása and Gideon Klein, German-speaking Jewish composers born in the Czech lands, both of whom perished in the Nazi holocaust. The expressive range is wide, from the bucolic folk style that lies behind Dvořák’s Evening Songs, through the more cosmopolitan delights of Mártinů, to the Second Viennese School influences in Krása’s Four Orchestral Songs. And this emotional and stylistic gamut plays exceptionally well to Kožená’s strengths, to a voice that has developed a richness and darkness as well as an alertness to changing moods and lively texts.

The album opens with Mártinů’s early Nipponari, seven Japanese folk texts in versions by the Czech decadent poet Emanuel Lešehrad published in Prague in 1909. Dating from 1912 – more than a decade before Mártinů’s life-changing visit to Paris – they demonstrate a musical and emotional maturity far beyond the composer’s tender years. Scored with huge imagination for small but highly effective forces including flute, cor anglais, harp, celesta, and strings in varying configurations, they have that chamber-music intimacy and modernity that would colour Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs more than half a century later. While the overall mood reflects Mártinů’s naturally melancholic disposition, the fifth song (‘Footsteps in the Snow’) is a sparkling delight, as if orientalist modalism had collided with a Russian snowscape. Kožená and her colleagues relish every moment, savouring the texts and the kaleidoscope of musical nuances they give rise to.

Mártinů’s Songs on One Page date from the years of his World War II US exile. Kožená has recorded them before in their original voice-and-piano versions on her 1998 DG album ‘Love Songs’ (with pianist Graham Johnson). Here she sings them in orchestrations by Jiří Teml which really allow their epigrammatic beauties to blossom, matching the bloom that has developed in Kožená’s voice since her earlier account. There are moments of exquisite beauty in these seven songs that could come straight out of Cantaloube’s Auvergne settings, but there’s also an earthy punchiness (in the second and fourth numbers) that pays tribute to Mártinů’s Czech roots.

Seven songs by Dvořák follow: five of his Evening Songs and two songs that originated in his early set of Cypresses. All are heard in orchestrations by Jiří Gemrot which combine sophistication with that emotional openness so characteristic of the composer. The opening number (‘When I looked into the sky’) bursts into life in true folk fashion, but after that there are infinite shades of delicacy, not least in the second of the Cypress settings, ‘My heart often broods in pain’, with horn interjections that evoke the woodland world of Dvořák’s greatest opera, Rusalka. Kožená responds warmly to these quintessentially Czech songs, and her lower register in particular has a richness which matches the opulence of the orchestral accompaniment.

It’s a huge leap to the expressionist world of Krása’s Four Orchestral Songs (1920), which set the nonsense verse of Christian Morgenstern to music of a Berg-like intensity. Soaring lines are attenuated in classic modernist manner, and the humour is of the dark kind (redolent at times of Wozzeck). Zemlinsky and Roussel were Krása’s teachers, but the mosaic-like deployment of the orchestral forces seems to owe more to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Most arresting is the second song (‘Nein!’), but the individuality and imagination evident in all of them is testament to a major talent lost too soon. This is music of the kind that is second nature to Rattle, and Kožená’s ardently committed performances, superbly enlivened by the immaculately balanced orchestral playing, do the music handsome justice. Klein’s Hebrew-texted Lullaby (in another Gemrot orchestration) makes a moving epilogue, composed as it was in the Terezín ghetto in 1943, and imbued with a heart-rending expressiveness that sets the seal on a remarkable album, full of delights and surprises.

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Recently taken under the wing of Universal Music Group, the British label Hyperion has a long-established reputation for excellence across a wide range of genres. Its landmark complete recording of Schubert’s complete songs under the curatorship of pianist Graham Johnson, the complete solo piano music of Liszt by Leslie Howard, Purcell’s choral music under the direction Robert King, and the still-active multi-disc survey of Romantic Piano Concertos all bear testament to Hyperion’s high standards of performance, recording and background research. The Schubert cycle in particular spawned a number of successors, including complete surveys of lieder by Schumann and Brahms as well as highly-regarded cycles of French melodies.

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