Magdalena Kožená / Carnegie Hall 2-23-13

I have been listening to a lot of German songs lately, and this recital – songs, but not German ones for the most part – was a pleasant change. It was in the larger of Carnegie Hall’s two auditoriums, the Perelman stage, and when I was reading about the concert on their website beforehand, there was a little snippet of a conversation with Kožená herself in which she said something that implied she was aware of a potential mismatch between the size of that hall and the repertoire. Not in a critical way, just in a “this may be interesting” sort of way.

I think she was probably right in that I came away from this thinking that I would really love to hear this program over again in Zankel Hall, which is smaller and a little more intimate. The space in the Perelman auditorium felt too big. (Also, we were informed beforehand that Kožená was feeling a little under the weather but would perform anyway. She didn’t sound at all sick to me.)

However, it was plenty enjoyable nonetheless. We got a mixture of songs from Mussorgsky, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Bartok and some Ezra Pound settings by Marc-Andre Dalbavie, which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and some other organizations for Kožená. Or rather I guess one Pound setting – three songs based on one poem, “The Unmoving Cloud.” These I would like to hear again. For one thing, I wasn’t following along in the text, and while certain patterns of consonants and an occasional word tipped me off that the songs were in English, I didn’t understand a word of them otherwise. I’m going to blame this on me paying more attention to the music than to the words. The first of these songs had the effect of showing off the lower 1/3 or so of Kožená’s voice, which I quite liked, and there was one particularly nice moment in the third of these, where the vocal line is solo for a few moments.

The Mussorgsky set was Detskaya (The Nursery) which Kožená performed in a way that felt conversational. These were full of little gestures and variations in tone color that made them expressive and (when appropriate) humorous even without the translations. There was a little more high drama with the Rachmaninoff selection (Songs Op. 38) – e.g. the hammery piano part in “Au!” / “The Quest” that made me think “oh, right, Rachmaninoff” and some big moments of vocal sound in “Noch’ju v sadu u menja” / “In my garden at night.”

My favorite part of this, though, was the set of five songs by Bartok, from Village Scenes or Dedinské scény (BB87a for those who like catalog numbers). Bartok always sounds ironic to me, as if everything is done with just a touch of cynicism (I rather like this quality, and if it’s just me who thinks of his music in this way, it’s just me) and Kožená performed these songs with an energy and a flair that I thought was really great. “Pri neveste” / “At the bride’s” was beautiful, as was “Ukoliebavka” / “Lullaby” though the second was so in a slightly more eerie, echoey way; Kožená seemed to pause the vibrato almost entirely for sections of this, and the sound was perfectly smooth and really intense. And in all five of these there was character and expressiveness to spare.

She gave us two encores. The first was Schumann’s (we will see if I get this title right) “Ich kann wohl manchmal singen” and I did not catch what the second was. The Schumann I really liked – I’m so used to, er, some specific other people singing this repertoire that hearing Kožená’s interpretation, with her own distinctive voice and style, was really refreshing and interesting.

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