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Magdalena Kožená Beguiles All Our Cares

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (photo by Mathias Bothor / DG)
Magdalena Kožená gave an exquisite recital on Wednesday night, presented in the presence of the Czech ambassador by the Vocal Arts Society at the Austrian Embassy. Sadly, like the recital by Anne Sofie von Otter at Strathmore last month, too few ears braved the ever-present storms to hear it, although that was less noticeable in this more intimate venue. Kožená's voice is not necessarily the most powerful or mellifluous, and she has been singing through an illness the last few weeks (affecting performances in New York and San Francisco). She managed to make it through the entire planned program this time, with some graininess at the top and volume limitations at the bottom, but thanks to a vibrant and thoughtful stage presence, her performance convinced and bewitched. She opened with a set of songs by Henry Purcell, excused from the concerns of period performance because she sang the arrangements by Benjamin Britten, with their booming octaves and exploitation of the range and power of the modern piano. In a suitably Baroque way, however, she did exploit the many contrasts of color and timbre, with a steely tone for the Alecto section of Music for a While (with the snakes plopping sonically from her head), a smooth, covered sound for the "cool evening breeze" of Sweeter than Roses, and a sunk-in-earth low growl in Not All My Torments.

The second half concluded with a serene reading of Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben, the womanly song cycle reviewed yesterday in some new recordings. Kožená was all golden radiance in the opening song, presenting the narrator's blind devotion to the man she loves with no trace of the postmodern irony that can sometimes creep into modern performances. If you are really irritated by the servile tone of the poetry, then it is best just to avoid this cycle, because unless one believes in the woman's self-humbling love -- Chamisso even has her echo the devotion of the Virgin Mary to God's call in the first stanza of the third song -- the cycle does not make much sense. Kožená's performance is not likely to make one forget better recordings, with the high note near the end of Helft mir, ihr Schwestern running out of gas, for example. There were many memorable moments, however, including the simplicity of Süßer Freund, du blickest, so hushed in the third stanza, and the excitement of An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust, almost leading her to dance up and down with joy, and the straight-toned knife edge of the high note on the words "Die Welt ist leer" in the final song. In a sense Kožená's Frauenliebe was as ethereal and disembodied as Marie-Nicole Lemieux's was earthy.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Kozena Presents Love, Detachment (Washington Post, May 8)
It is always a pleasure to hear some of the Duparc songs, when they are performed with subtlety and transparency as they were here. Kožená's pianist, Karel Košárek, negotiated around the occasionally tinny sound of the embassy's Bösendorfer, an instrument that has continued to disappoint my ear (and not only since Till Fellner equated it with firewood). This atmospheric and pleasing music is well suited to Kožená's voice, especially in the sultry and not over-emphasized harmonic shifts of Extase and the satiny legato of Phydilé. Lightning flashes appeared through the skylights in the second half, often uncannily timed to dramatic moments in the songs as in Nacht, the opening song of the closing set, Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder ("Gib acht!" -- lightning flash!). In tackling these songs Kožená is never going to measure up to a dramatic soprano like Renée Fleming or Alessandra Marc, but the juxtaposition with the Duparc songs drove home the symbolist connection between the two sets (the visual equivalent would be to put paintings by Matisse and Ernst Kirchner side by side). Encores by Fauré and Mahler, but alas no Czech folks songs, concluded a lovely evening.

The remaining recitals on the Vocal Arts Society season will feature soprano Laura Stuart and baritone Steven Combs, with pianist R. Timothy McReynolds in a free concert at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage (May 11, 6 pm), and baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes with pianist Craig Rutenberg at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (May 12, 7:30 pm).

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