Chansons madecasses (Ravel);
Il Tramonto (Respighi);
Drei Stimmungsbilder (Schulhoff);
A Charm of Lullabies (Britten)
DG 471 581-2
reviewed by Neville Cohn
|Magdalena Kozena’s voice is a remarkable instrument – and in this compilation, it does her bidding to an extraordinarily meaningful degree.Respighi’s Il Tramonto is a perfect vehicle for displaying it to advantage. Listen to the skill with which she is able to sustain a note without loss of power or weakening of intonation while producing a stream of sound that caresses the ear. There is about the singing here a serene, contemplative quality that sounds intuitively right; it blends beautifully with the corporate sound of the Henschel Quartet.Kozena’s account of Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies to Malcolm Martineau’s unfailingly stylish accompaniments at the piano, is frankly magical. I particularly admired her account of The Highland Balou to words of Robbie Burns. With its gentle Scotch snap, Kozena’s vocal line has a velvety mellow quality to which Martineau responds with exquisite backing. On the other hand, A Charm (which, with its references to horned hags, would surely be frightening for a young child before lights are put off for the night) seems grossly unsuitable as a lullaby – but then, Britten had no children and perhaps simply could not imagine that a father, with an instinct to protect and shield a child from harm and fear, could never inflict so unsuitable a song on a child being lulled to sleep.
Similarly unsuitable for little children, surely, is Nurse’s Song, more menacing than soothing. But Kozema and Martineau are beyond reproach in that in each case they take up an interpretative position at the emotional epicentre of the music. This is artistry of the highest order.
Of Ravel’s Madagascan songs, it is the second in the cycle – Cries – that makes for rivetting listening from its initial crashing chord that calls attention to a terrible tale of violence visited upon the largely defenceless native Madagascans by French colonisers. This song, with its undercurrent of horror, is flanked by pieces of a very different stripe: the first, a love song is given near-ecstatic treatment – and the languor which informs Il est doux is very convincingly evoked.
A generous compilation includes three songs by Erwin Schulhoff who died, tragically young, in a nazi concentration camp in 1942. Close your eyes, to the accompaniment of piano and Christoph Henschel’s sweet-toned violin, comes across as the apotheosis of sadness. And of a bracket of songs by Shostakovich, it is The Critic that lodges most firmly in the mind with its bitter, withering attack
In this compilation, Kozena proves herself that rarity among singers: she sounds utterly persuasive no matter what language she sings in. This, in addition to a no-less-infrequently encountered ability to mine everything she approaches for the subtlest of interpretative nuances, places her in a special category of excellence.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn