British conductor Sir Simon Rattle and Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena (Photo by Barbara Sax/AFP via Getty Images)

A conviction singer who convinces

Folk Songs: Magdalena Kozena/Simon Rattle (Pentatone)

Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week


Most record reviewers listen to a release no more than one and a half times before making up their minds. Myself, I like to take a little longer. When doubt lingers or expectation is unfulfilled, I’ll return to the record a week later for re-listening. It does not always resolve my qualms, and my second impression can often be less positive than the first. Every now and then, though, I’m glad I returned.

Kozena tamps down the voltage and plays hide-and-seek with the orchestra

Nothing seemed to add up on my first encounter with Magdalena Kozena’s trawl through four sets of folk songs orchestrated by Bela Bartok, Luciano Berio, Maurice Ravel and the Spaniard Xavier Montsalvage. The Hungarian set was an instant stumbling block. Orchestrated in 1933, at a low point in Bartok’s life and world, Kozena seemed to smooth over astringencies in the score and a harshness to the text. The Czech Philharmonic, conducted by her husband, sounded atypically tentative. Second time round, I had more tolerance for her relative sentimentality. Musical interpretation does not always need to accommodate a ghost of the composer’s history.

Berio’s set of American, Armenian, French, Italian and Azeri folk songs was assembled for his wife, Cathy Berberian, an American-Armenian with astonishing vocal versatility. Kozena tamps down the voltage and plays hide-and-seek with the orchestra, her playfulness countermanding Berberian’s missionary zeal. Some of the instrumental solos are filigree.

Ravel’s Greek melodies are dispatched with panache; they cannot surely be this easy to sing. In the Montsalvatge set, Kozena goes Carmen in the Caribbean. Second time round, this album turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. The disparate cultures on display yield hope that we might be one humanity, after all. Kozena is a conviction singer, and I emerged almost totally convinced.

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