Mahler – Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Debussy – Chansons de Bilitis
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Debussy – Ariettes oubliées
Messiaen – Poèmes pour Mi: Book II (selection)
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Though an announcement was made to the effect that Magdalena Kožená was suffering from a sore throat, for the most part one would barely have known, for this was a fine recital, intriguingly programmed and committed in performance. It did no harm, of course, having a pianist of the stature of Dame Mitsuko Uchida, the individuality of her artistry apparent from the introduction to ‘Rheinlegendchen,’ the first of the two Wunderhorn sonds. Uchida’s shaping of phrases, her voicing of harmonies, and the sheer weight of tone made it abundantly clear that this was no ‘accompanist’. The individuality of Kožená’s voice, a deep mezzo that sometimes borders upon the rare realm of the contralto, was an equal joy to experience. Searing drama was to be heard in ‘Das irdische Leben,’ its tale of a child’s starvation peering forward towards the Rückert-Lieder heard later in the programme and indeed to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The final line, starkly delivered, ‘Lag das Kind auf der Totenbahr’ (‘The child lay on the funeral bier’), chilled to the bone.
The Rückert-Lieder were equally distinguished. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ brought an almost straightforward sunniness, whilst the will-o’-the-wisp quality imparted to ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ inevitably reminded one of Schubert’s ‘Irrlicht’. Uchida’s leaning into accented notes was judged to dramatic perfection. A chilling stillness pervaded the piano introduction to ‘Um Mitternacht’, its first interlude well-nigh orchestral in its colour – and drama. The blissful repose both artists conveyed in the final stanza of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ provided a spellbinding conclusion to the first half.
In between the two Mahler sets we had heard the contrasting erotics of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis. Uchida’s experience in Debussy really told, the opening to ‘La flute de Pan’ sounding as if a newly-discovered Prélude, its conclusion simply exquisite in its touch. Kožená’s quasi-spoken vocal style drew inevitable parallels with Pelléas et Mélisande, whose latter role she has sung with her husband, Sir Simon Rattle. ‘La chevelure’ could also not help but bring to mind that most subtly ravishing of operas (with the perennial exception of Così), the deepness of Kožená’s voice an especial boon here. The climax, ‘ou que tu entrais en moi comme mon songe’ (‘where you enter into me, as in my dream’) left one in need of a cold shower afterwards. Ecstasy was finely counterbalanced in ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’ by the fine sense of storytelling Kožená brought to proceedings.
Ariettes oubliées opened the second half. ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse, c’est la fatigue amoureuse,’ are Verlaine’s opening lines – and so it was: languorous rapture, amorous fatigue. Attention to detail without the slightest hint of exaggeration is crucial to these songs, a splendid example of which was the expectant pause, beautifully judged, after ‘C’est’, before ‘vers les ramures grises’. An unfortunate broken note upon the final word, ‘bas’ was a rare sign of Kožená’s indisposition. The dramatically, musically alert playing Uchida contributed to ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur,’ once again had one fancy this was a piano Prélude – with obbligato voice. Uchida’s virtuosity and Kožená’s vocal impetuosity proved a fine match in ‘Chevaux de bois’, its final stanza bringing an apt sense of sickness, following the whirling of the merry-go-round. ‘Spleen’ was operatic, but never too much – just like Pelléas itself, of course.
Messiaen’s Poèms pour Mi, or rather a selection from the second book, made one long to hear these artists in both books. Uchida brought an unsurpassable feeling for harmony and its progression. ‘L’épouse,’ the first song programmed, benefited from startling muscular performances from her and from Kožená: one was left in no doubt of the imperative to go where the Spirit leads. Rhythmic command is equally crucial, as displayed in an ecstatic ‘Ta voix’ (second) and the difficult metrics of the final ‘Prière exaucée’, whose melismatic solos terrified and mesmerised. In between, we heard an intensely dramatic, both weird and orthodox ‘Les deux guerriers,’ which penetrated to the very heart of Messiaen’s unique French mysticism, and a duly heated ‘Le collier’, two arms entwined around the neck.