Sunday, 7 February 2010

Kožená/Schiff - Janáček, Dvořák, Mussorgsky, and Bartók, 6 February 2010

Wigmore Hall

Janáček – Selection from Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs
Janáček – In the Mists
Dvořák – Biblical Songs, op.99
Mussorgsky – The Nursery
Bartók – Village Scenes

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
András Schiff (piano)

The diacriticals are out in force, making this not the easiest of reviews to type on an English keyboard – but what a minor inconvenience from so welcome a change. The Wigmore Hall’s programme is jam-packed with Schubert and Schumann songs, as are other halls’ schedules, yet how often are we treated to performances of songs by Janáček, Dvořák, Mussorgsky, and Bartók? The problem is in good part linguistic. Nevertheless, matters are rather different in the world of opera, so why not in the recital hall? The milieux and repertories do not call upon identical strengths. An estimable opera singer may or may not be equally gifted as a recitalist – I nearly said Lieder artist – and vice versa.

It would be good, then, to hear a wider range of singers tackle such repertoire, yet, on this occasion, there could be no gainsaying the authority of Magdalena Kožená’s contribution. In Janáček’s Moravian folksong settings, one heard the sadness and joy in life, two sides of the same coin: true humanity, both profound and commonplace. Through Love, Promise, Uneasy, Carnation, Tears of Comfort, and Musicians – there seems little point in employing the original language titles on this occasion – she never aestheticised the music, nor did she attempt to sound like a ‘real’ folk-singer. András Schiff’s playing was perhaps surprisingly muscular, though the insistence of his part permitted one to hear the composer’s suggestions of other instruments in his writing.

Schiff’s contribution became more problematical in the solo set of four pieces, In the Mists. It was a strange mix: sometimes a parodically rigid, heavy-handed near-Teutonism, sometimes playing of impressionistic delicacy. Janáček’s twists and turns were loving traced in the opening Andante, but the intriguing echoes of Chopin in the second movement were marred by soon being hammered out. I had expected to hear Schiff more in sympathy with Janáček's style than proved to be the case.

The rest of the first part was devoted to Dvořák’s ten Biblical Songs. I fear I found this too much of a not-so-good thing. This had nothing to do with the performances, but in these settings, Dvořák’s voice does not seem to me at its strongest, a suspicion confirmed by the contrast with the performers’ first encore, a deeply-felt Songs my Mother Taught Me. Here, much, though not all, tends towards the anodyne or insipid; Brahms’s Four Serious Songs these are not. Nevertheless, Kožená sounded committed, from the splendidly declamatory opening of Clouds and Darkness are Around About Him onwards. Schiff in general made the most of piano parts, which sometimes too openly aspire towards the orchestral, though a little more Lisztian Romanticism would have benefited Hear my Prayer, O Lord my God! (Schiff has spoken more than once of his contempt for Liszt, unusual for a Hungarian, though no more creditable for that.) Delicacy was better served than abandon. Kožená, however, proved winningly operatic in her projection. I liked the pastoral quality both artists imparted to God is my Shepherd. And the conviction Kožená brought to the final line of Turn Thee to me and Have Mercy – ‘Nebot’ v Tebe doufám’ (‘… for my hope is in Thee’) was unmistakeable.

With Mussorgsky’s cycle, The Nursery (or Detskaya), we were in very different territory, the voice of the composer immediately apparent. Kožená was very much in her element here, vividly characterising, both vocally and visually. (More puritanical Lieder-devotees might well have disapproved, but these are not Lieder.) She seems to have a particular connection to the world of children’s imagination, having shone in a similar way during a Berlin performance of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. In the Corner showed how readily she could switch ‘character’, very much the old crone and equally much the insolent child, whilst The Beetle left one in no doubt how much apparently little things can matter to a child. With the Doll proved a compelling lullaby, Schiff etching the rhythm unerringly, permitting Kožená to weave her magic above. Nanny’s love for the little monster of the nursery came through in Hobby-horse Rider, as did Schiff’s delineation of the accompaniment’s ‘character’. This was a fine account.

Finally, we returned to folksong, for Bartók’s setting of Slovak songs, Village Scenes. Once again, and even though the melodies are not his, the composer’s voice was unmistakeable from the opening. Schiff truly revelled in Bartók’s extraordinary piano writing, not least the harmonies. The way he shaded into nothingness at the end of At the Bride’s was an object lesson. Kožená’s wild peasant cry in Wedding was quite something, subtly taken up in the piano part thereafter. Lullaby was, rightly, mysterious and troubling: what might sleep bring? Yet with such a compelling narrator, sleep must nevertheless win out. Once again, Schiff imparted just the right character to the final Lads’ Dance, a strong rhythmic profile ensuring that both artists’ contribution would culminate in the requisite frenetic abandon.