In Performance: Local Reviews
In the paper: Last Night at the NSO: Contemporary Music Without an Axe to Grind, by Anne Midgette.
On the Web: Kozena Presents Love, Detachment, by Anne MIdgette:
[Note: the following review will run in this Saturday's Washington Post.]
Some composers, faced with the challenge of writing music for the voice, write as if it were simply another instrument: they give it notes that fall within its compass, but write without sympathy for the distinctive line, arc, sweep, of human song. Magdalena Kozena, the mezzo-soprano, sings as if her voice were an instrument. She wields it with all the appearance of expression — indeed, she works very hard to convey expression — but it seems like something apart from her body, oddly distanced, that she has to struggle to bring into line, making hard, straight, reedy sounds rather than a malleable roundness.
This is the way, at least, that she sang at her Washington recital on a rainy Wednesday night that sent flashes of lightning through the skylights of the Austrian Embassy. On the previous Friday, before a New York performance of “The Damnation of Faust” with her husband, the conductor Simon Rattle, it was announced that she was fighting a cold. To give her the benefit of the doubt, lingering traces of that might have been what hardened the edges of her voice and made the whole endeavor more work than it needed to be. There was a lot to like about this recital, but vocally, it would have been better overall if she had worked a little less and trusted her voice a little more.
(continue reading after the jump)
Kozena did buck the trend of recital-as-album-tour: No selections from “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” released on Deutsche Grammophon a couple of weeks ago, were on the program. Instead, it was as carefully planned, elegant, and distanced as the singer herself, including two recital standbys — Schumann’s hoary “Frauenliebe und-Leben,” and Berg’s “Sieben frühe Lieder” — and sets of songs by Purcell and Duparc.
And she certainly had things to offer in each set. The Purcell songs are beautiful; it’s just that they felt overworked. The most successful moments came when she notched back her intensity and just let the notes be, as she did at the very start of “Music for a While.” Usually, however, she coupled high notes with an emphatic quality that led to a straight, even steam-whistle tone by the end of the evening. In this set, she established the expressive default of the evening: lots of motion of hands and head, and an odd little waggle of her body, all communicating an informality that was at odds with the seriousness of her presentation.
The Schumann really ought to be done in costume:; it’s a period piece about a 19th-century woman worshipping at the altar of her beloved (first admired from afar, later her husband), and it’s certainly anything but the cry of an emancipated woman. Kozena, again, was at her best when she sang simply: The lines in the first song about “a waking dream,” or the restraint in the fifth song when she broke off to extol her lover’s radiance, were gorgeous. She impressively invested each song with a slightly different hue. And then she kept falling into a kind of brittle hysteria in climaxes. She was matched, in this, by her pianist, Karel Kosarek, who ably moved from gentleness to sharp-etched ferocity, but tended to exaggerate.
The Duparc was a better fit temperamentally; Kozena responded to the songs’ mystery with a clarion tone that evoked lushness without actually presenting it. But it was the “Sieben frühe Lieder” that represented the best match of singer and song. Kozena’s straight, wide-eyed sound evoked the odd innocence of a “Pierrot Lunaire”: It perfectly fit Berg’s beautiful and slightly other-worldly poems, investing them with a quality slightly sinister, slightly child-like, and very evocative.
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