Magdalena Kožená and Christian Schmitt: "Prayer: Voice and Organ"
Songs by J. S. Bach, Schubert, Wolf, Bizet, Duruflé, Dvořák, Ravel and Verdi. Texts and translations. Deutsche Grammophon DG 00289 479 2067
Starting with Schubert's song of a gravedigger who yearns for his own death ("Totengräbers Heimweh"), Magdalena Kožená takes a broad, dramatic approach to devotional music. Her program, dominated by Bach, Schubert and Hugo Wolf, often feels uncommonly dour, with a preponderance of minor keys, as if emphasizing human desperation rather than spiritual comfort. If this is unlikely material for a singer whose bright timbre and temperament seem to predestine her for lyric, mischievous operatic roles, especially Dorabella, that challenge adds zest to the recital.
The gravedigger in the first song is almost overcome with anguish. An urgent tempo in the first stanzas intensifies the fierceness of the rising bass chords hammered out by organist Christian Schmitt. You can almost feel the voice and keyboard egging one another on. Without forcing in the chest register, Kožená darkens and thickens her timbre considerably and comes down hard on key words. Unlike those singers who linger over the quiet final section to savor its dream of release, Kožená's persistent edgy tone and pace seem to defy any comfort.
Death is again appealed to in Bach's "Komm, süsser Tod," and again without the contrasting relief some artists bring to its later stanzas. If Schubert's "Ave Maria" lacks specificity, it shows off a firm legato style that is also effective in the composer's poignant "Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen" and Maurice Duruflé's "Notre Père," the most recent work (from 1977). Kožená is operatically forceful in concluding a few melodies, such as a brief Bizet "Agnus Dei" and her shapely, moody performance of Ravel's "Kaddisch."
The pinnacle of commitment is reached with the unusual scene called "The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation," by Henry Purcell. This is a monologue in which Mary is still on earth, praying rather than prayed to; the text by playwright Nahum Tate, librettist of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, imagines her maternal anxieties during an incident in the Gospels in which the boy Jesus is missing. In extended arioso set off by brief melodic allegros, the mood and expression cover considerable range, from near-speech to florid elaboration. Kožená's characterization is charged with inventiveness that suggests desperation; melismatic lines have nervous mobility and a quality of free association, and she slightly flattens some crucial vowels for emotional effect. (This device becomes almost habitual elsewhere, leaving an impression of some technical instability.)
The four selections from Wolf's Mörike lieder and one from his Spanish songbook are vivid and affecting. The famous "Gebet," which starts "Lord, send what you will" (and then proceeds to bargain a bit), needs more subtlety and differentiation in response to specific words. But Kožená is penetrating and evocative in the bittersweet nostalgia of "Karwoche" (Holy Week), with its childlike sense of occasion and its apostrophizing of flowers that come to die on the altar. She brings compelling warmth to the small-scale "Schlafendes Jesuskind."
Schmitt's organ arrangements and his playing often seem very apt to religious themes, but there are soft effects, such as the birdsong evocation in "Karwoche" or the faux pizzicatos in Schubert's "Ave Maria," in which the piano's subtlety is missed. Schmitt applies vivid colorings, bassoon-like, in the Purcell, and he consistently heightens the drama of the darkest moods.
DAVID J. BAKER
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