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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Magdalena Kožená Delivers Convincing Rendition Of Diverse Folk Songs

By Norman Lebrecht on November 24, 2023

Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (Photo from the album cover courtesy of Pentatone)
Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (Photo from the album cover courtesy of Pentatone)

Folk Songs: Magdalena Kožená/Simon Rattle (Pentatone)


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Most record reviewers listen to a release no more than one and a half times before making up their minds. Myself, I like to take a little longer. When doubt lingers or expectation is unfulfilled, I’ll return to the record a week later for relistening. It does not always resolve my qualms, and my second impression can often be less positive than the first. But, every now and then, I’m glad I returned.

Nothing seemed to add up on my first encounter with Magdalena Kožená’s trawl through four sets of folk songs orchestrated by Béla Bartók, Luciano Berio, Maurice Ravel and the Spaniard Xavier Montsalvage. The Hungarian set was an instant stumbling block. Orchestrated in 1933, at a low point in Bartók’s life and world, Kožená seemed to smooth over astringencies in the score and a harshness to the text. The Czech Philharmonic, conducted by her husband, sounded atypically tentative. Second time round, I had more tolerance for her relative sentimentality. Musical interpretation does not always need to accommodate a ghost of the composer’s history.

Berio’s set of American, Armenian, French, Italian and Azeri folk songs was assembled for his wife, Cathy Berberian, an American-Armenian with astonishing vocal versatility. Kožená tamps down the voltage and plays hide-and-seek with the orchestra, her playfulness countermanding Berberian’s missionary zeal. Some of the instrumental solos are filigree.

Ravel’s Greek melodies are dispatched with panache; they cannot surely be this easy to sing. In the Montsalvatge set, Kožená goes Carmen in the Caribbean. Second time round, this album turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. The disparate cultures on display yield hope that we might be one humanity, after all. Kožená is a conviction singer, and I emerged almost totally convinced.

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