Love and Longing
Ravel’s Shéhérazade and the five Rückert songs by Mahler offer the more conventional pleasures on this disc but Madgalena Kožená’s affectionate, sensitive espousal of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs lends the programme an added dimension of sympathetic soul-searching. These 10 songs are natural territory for a Czech-born singer such as Kožená and they bring back memories of her DG ‘Love Songs’ disc of Dvořák, Janáček and Martinů (8/00), for which she won the Gramophone Vocal Award in 2001. In the intervening years, of course, she has encompassed a broad swathe of repertoire from Bach and the Baroque through to Benjamin Britten, singing in English, French, German and Russian as well as Czech, and on this new disc her ease and clarity of language are as impressive as her instinctive feel for the modes of expression voiced by such diverse composers as Dvořák, Ravel and Mahler. Add to that the natural sensitivity to idiom and the glorious sound of the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Kožená’s husband, Sir Simon Rattle, and you have one of those partnerships made in heaven.
Heaven is the focus of the Biblical Songs but so, too, is Dvořák’s Czech homeland. He wrote the songs in the spring of 1894, while he was in America as director of the National Conservatory in New York. The New World Symphony had been unveiled at Carnegie Hall in the previous year; and if that work fuses Native American and native Czech traits, the Biblical Songs are almost entirely expressions of nostalgia. Indeed, one of them, ‘Při řekách babylonsk≥ch’ (‘By the waters of Babylon’) is couched in such poignant terms that it is perfectly possible to imagine that Dvořák himself sat down and wept with wistfulness while writing it. Taken from Psalm 137, this is one of the most touching songs in the set, beautifully and subtly sung by Kožená with the colours of the orchestral accompaniment discreetly etched in. There is a quiet ardour about Kožená’s interpretation when the text answers the captors’ demand for a mirthful song with the sad question, ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Did Dvořák see himself as a captive in a strange land? Certainly he was having a few problems in securing his pay from his benefactress Mrs Jeannette Thurber, whose millionaire husband was facing bankruptcy; but, whatever the reasons, the song’s simplicity conveys a calm message of longing.
All 10 of the songs are drawn from the psalms, as laid out in the Czech Bible of Kralice. Dvořák responded to them with varied shades of pensiveness. On occasion, as in ‘Oblak a mrákota’ (‘Clouds and Darkness’), with its anguished introductory orchestral chords, the vocal line is cast almost in free recitative burgeoning into rapturous melody, with Rattle making sure that the rising cello motifs in the orchestral part define the ‘lightning’ of the text. Contrasted with that is the cosseting melody of ‘Slyš, ó Bože, volání mé’ (‘Give ear to my prayer, O God’), with woodwind textures thoroughly familiar from the New World Symphony and with Kožená finding a slight catch in the voice to express the line ‘My heart is sore pained within me; and the terrors of death are fallen upon me’. But if many of these songs are contemplative, the last of them is a bouncy setting of ‘Zpívejte Hospodinu píseň novou’ (‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’), which is as vibrant and optimistic an example of Dvořák’s use of Czech folk-like ideas as can be imagined. He was, after all, about to sail home for the summer.
Kožená encapsulates and conveys the spectrum of moods with a wealth of understanding and apt vocal inflection. In the quite different realms of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, the Berlin Philharmonic’s discreetly plush instrumental sonority and the warm qualities of Kožená’s voice coalesce to create a sumptuous but lucid, luminous soundscape for Tristan Klingsor’s mellifluous verse. The opening oboe melody of ‘Asie’ is wonderfully seductive, the fragmentation of the orchestral parts after the singer’s first entry sparkling with light. Rattle’s way with the music’s ebb and flow of dynamics and pace throughout the three songs is perfectly matched to Kožená’s fluid and eloquently modulated singing. One is immediately aware here that not only is she singing in French but that the character of her voice, her articulation and her interpretative temperament have been finely retuned after the Dvořák to become a natural outlet for Ravel. The same is true of the Mahler songs, artlessly and subtly dramatised by both orchestra and singer. Kožená might not have the amplest of mezzo-soprano voices for this repertoire but the personality of her singing, her agility, her clear characterisation of a song such as ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ make the music spring to life. So, too, does the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing, which is spirited in ‘Blicke mir nicht’ but can switch to darker, reflective hues for ‘Um Mitternacht’ and to a gentle undercurrent for Kožená’s softly floated line in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’. There is never any doubt, whether in Dvořák, Ravel or Mahler, that Kožená has these songs in her heart and has the wisdom and finesse with which to convey their very essence.