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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 8, 2009; 6:35 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Your review was more balanced than what I would have written. Kozena appealed to the crowd. She drew us in with her wildness in the Purcell and her raw emotionalism in the Schumann; but unlike the majority of the audience in the second half of the program I became weary of her unconvincing and uniformly piercing climaxes. She obviously trades on being able to penetrate a full opera orchestra but I would have welcomed more subtlety and variety in this song recital.

Posted by: sfjoseph | May 8, 2009 8:54 AM | Report abuse

So, in describing the Schuller piece, does "comprehensible" mean "good" or "bad"? I can certainly think of a lot of pieces that fall into the "comprehensible but boring" category.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | May 8, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Darn, I missed the Julian Anderson piece (speed ticket!) Of the three remaining pieces I liked Schuller's the most. Augusta Read Thomas piece was indeed skilfully orchestrared but, listening to her comments, I couldn't help feeling that it would work better with dancers; as "pure music" it was really about "nothing". And I would certainly like to hear the other two companion pieces, maybe as a whole they make a better impression as pure music. As of Knussen's work, it did not really "meet me halfway." This is a piece I would like to hear a few times before judging it - and fortunately a recording exists.

The post concert discussion was as always interesting, although one could not have helped with the impression that Knussen is a veritable encyclopedia though he has a hard time speaking. But he speaks better with his music, so why complain.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 8, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

I missed the NSO concert last night and have no chance of attending tonight or tomorrow. The comment that the Knussen, at least, is available on disc sent me on a quick search of the Web, and Amazon was even less helpful than usual. With a bit of help from other sites, I turned up that one performance -- buried in a two-disc DG set of British works from the Proms. I can get it used from Amazon for about ten dollars including shipping, but it feels weird to buy two discs for ten dollars to get a bit over 16 minutes of music. Nor can I find any place where I can download just the concerto at any sort of savings. No wonder the classical recording business is limping into the future. I'd pay up to four or five bucks to get the Knussen Concerto on my iPod, but I can't find any legitimate site that will take me up on it.

Ms. Midgette -- the whole topic of how we find and listen to classical music outside the concert hall is worthy of extended discussion. I'd be happy to contribute a (non-libelous) screed on WETA to the cause. How about it?

Posted by: BobL | May 8, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

To BobL

This page:

should take you to the correct download page for the Knussen Violin Concerto on the DG website - and you should be able to download the concerto only, if you wish.

Posted by: NigelBoonNSO | May 8, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

A quick thank-you to NigelBoonN for the link to the DG site. Unfortunately, DG hasn't made the music available for download. Knussen isn't even on the composer list at the home page for their web sales.

This is, of course, all too characteristic of the web these days. You can download Beethoven for next to nothing from several locations, but unless the label is on Classics Online or EMusic, there's a good chance you can't get that obscure piece you're looking for. Maybe it's just a matter of time, or maybe if your niche is too small you'll never find the niche music you seek -- except perhaps on a CD that may turn out to cost more than dinner for two at a good restaurant. After the first hundred gigs or so (roughly a thousand hours in mp3) on the iPod (I have the no-longer-available-new 160-gb Classic), one recording one way or the other isn't more than a small annoyance. But annoyance it is. (Try downloading Rautavaara's Sixth from EMusic if you're looking for an annoyance.)

I'm nowhere near smart enough to figure out the solution, and things are certainly a lot better than in the pre-web days of the LP. But the system is far from perfect ... for now at least.

Posted by: BobL | May 10, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

“It was musically rather conservative, offering a look at composers who focus on creating works for the standard symphony orchestra: It didn't break new ground.” (A.Midgette on the NSO contemporary music program)

I would disagree. I think that the Julian Anderson work "Imagin'd Corners" was the first “spectralist” (non-tempered over-tone series) influenced work performed by the NSO in some time. (Next year, there will be the John Adams’s “just intonation” Violin Concerto "The Dharma of Big Sur" -- for six stringed amplified violin – under Ms. Josefowicz and Mr. Adams).

Perhaps Nigel Boon or someone else has a better memory or documentation than do I, but I only recall the NSO performing a few such non-tempered or spectralist works in the past: Antal Dorati conducting an American premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s huge, gong-inflected “La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ”, past NSO associate conductor Elizabeth Schulte (I think) leading the bass-harmonic “Tears Of The Angel Israfel” movements of Lou Harrison’s “Elegaic Symphony”, and Leonard Slatkin leading an American premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Nymphea Reflection” for string orchestra . (I think that there was also one French quasi- spectralist work performed by the NSO, but that work doesn’t now come readily to my mind.)

Furthermore, I wasn’t disappointed that the NSO orchestral concert offered four quite new works written for the “standard [sic] symphony orchestra.”

Let’s hope that the NSO invites Oliver Knussen back soon for another “standard symphony orchestra” concert – perhaps again with a major focus on contemporary British orchestral music.

How about a program consisting of an opening work by Jocelyn Pook, followed by works by Henze, Birtwistle, and another work by Knussen himself? I am not aware of the NSO having yet performed works by either Henze or Birtwistle (although they have performed Tippett and Maxwell Davies).

(It wasn't me who added the second "focus" in the first sentence, but the Washington Post system.)

Posted by: snaketime | May 11, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Another quick note for BobL - I just went to that DGG page and downloaded the Violin Concerto in 3 tracks! There are three albums with the same cover, but with different couplings, and one will allow download of just the concerto. All too confusing, I agree, but it does work!

Thanks too to snaketime for considered comments - I think you're right about the repertoire, although our very well-documented archive doesn't file repertoire according to genre, so I can't confirm with 100% certainty. As for re-inviting Oliver Knussen - watch this space!

Posted by: NigelBoonNSO | May 12, 2009 12:05 AM | Report abuse

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