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Artillery Row

Surprise and tension

Czech Songs: Magdalena Kozena (Pentatone)

The first we heard of Magdalena Kozena was a mid-1990s album of Bach arias, recorded when she was 22. The voice was at once light and dark — think Emma Kirkby in a John Le Carre novel. Given that Kirkby and Co had covered most of the Baroque, it was hard to see where an unknown from Brno would go. Kozena put in a year at the Vienna Volksoper and that was as far as she went on the conventional career path, beyond occasional performances and opera productions. Now 50, Kozena is known more as a recording artist than a live performer. Married to the conductor Sir Simon Rattle, she lives in Berlin and chooses her repertoire with care.

Listening to her new release, one has to marvel at the unpredictable way a voice matures. From light in weight and dark in colour, the tone has deepened and rounded — think Brigitte Fassbaender with added gravitas. There are moments in this programme where she could be Jenufa or Katya in Janacek’s operas. At other points she is almost in the range of Schoenberg or Berg. 

The songs she chooses are unexpected — a set of Japanese songs by Bohuslav Martinu, possibly the least performed great composer of modern times — some juvenilia by Antonin Dvorak and fragments by Hans Krasa and Gidon Klein, two Jewish composers who were murdered in the Nazi Holocaust.

The Martinu songs are nothing like the faux-orientalisms confected by Debussy and Ravel. They are as Czech as Pilsen beer, without a side-order of sushi. Martinu is drawing curlicues on an imported culture that he may have seen through a shop window. His Japan is purely imagined, a fantasy that Kozena embraces to its fullness.

Dvorak’s songs are bucolic jingles of the sort Brahms might have used in his Bohemian Rhapsody. Krasa’s approach is determinedly modern, borderline Lulu. Klein’s lullaby also has a Hebrew title, meaning “sleep my son”.

The excursion Kozena takes from Martinu’s Nippon through Dvorak’s Moravia to the tragic histories of two Terezin composers admirably calibrated. Surprise and tension grow throughout the hour. The Czech Phiharmonic, Rattle conducting, offer intuitive sustenance in immaculate Pentatone sound. This is the most vivid recital disc I have heard all year.

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