It all starts rather unfortunately. First of all, I forget about the time difference with England and call too early. One hour later I am told that she is not at home, and that I should try her on her mobile. The time is not right, she says, she’s in a museum, and besides, she didn’t know anything about the interview. So we make a new appointment right away.
Three times is a charm. This time she is at home and extremely friendly. First of all she wants to apologize, something must have gone wrong. It doesn’t matter, I say. These things happen. Her speaking voice resembles her singing voice: silvery, warm and quiet. Dark too, which sounds very attractive with that touch of a Czech accent.
First of all I would like to talk about her latest CD.
– Who chose the program?
“I did. DG wanted to make a CD with more instruments than just a piano. They proposed Il Tramonto by Respighi, the rest I have chosen. Yes, it sounds a bit melancholic, but I think it also has to do with the period, most of those compositions were written between the two world wars. The saddest music is that of Schulhoff, but he was also a tragic figure. A Jew, who died in a concentration camp. For me, his songs also have something of the Slavic melancholy.”
– On that CD you sing songs in five different languages, do you also speak them?
“More or less, yes. I learned Russian at school, I speak English and French fluently. My Italian is also good and I learned German when I lived in Vienna for a few years”.
– On your recordings, and there are quite a few of them, you sing music from Bach to Martinů, and from Gluck to Verdi. Also on stage?
Laughing: “Well, no. Certainly not Verdi. But it’s completely different when you put together a recital with opera arias. It is extremely difficult to bring so many different characters to life within 5 minutes, you need an entire opera to do that. That’s why, or so I think, you have to make it as varied as possible, otherwise it will be boring. The idea of Verdi came from Marc Minkowski. At first we even argued about it, but in the end he managed to convince me. He explained that this aria (by Eboli from Don Carlos) sounds like a Spanish folk song, and I think he was right.”
“Minkowski was the first great conductor I met, about seven years ago. He means a lot to me, he’s my music buddy. Nowadays we don’t see each other very often anymore, but in the beginning, we did 4 to 5 projects a year together. I learned a lot from him. When you are a beginner you try to sing as beautifully as possible. He taught me that music is so much more than just beauty.”
For a long time we talk about her Zerlina in Salzburg, two years ago, in 2002. I was there and say that I loved her but hated that production. And again she has to laugh: “I loved that production! When I was offered that role, I only accepted it because it was Salzburg. And Harnoncourt. Zerlina was always synonymous with a stupid blonde for me, but here she got a little more character.”
– Actually, I think your voice is very suitable for the French repertoire, especially Massenet. Do you ever intend to sing it on stage?
“I would love to, especially Cendrillon, but it is so rarely performed, even in France. Most people still like to see me in operas by Mozart and Händel.”
She lives in Paris, but is very rarely at home, the last year only 40 days. She usually meets her husband, a French baritone, somewhere on the road.
Does she think about children?
“I like the idea, but then I have to give up a lot of my life, especially when the children have to go to school”.
For the time being, she is full of plans.
This is an extremely interesting CD with an unusual program. Uncommon, because apart from Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses and, perhaps also Respighi’s Il Tramonto, the rest is unknown to most listeners. All songs were composed in the first half of the last century in five different European countries, and radiate a strong melancholy and nostalgia.
The accompagnement is also exceptional, the songs are not only accompanied by the piano, but also by violin, string quartet, flute, cello and piano. Each and every one of them special compositions, sung by Kožena with great understanding of the text. I myself have a bit of trouble with her Russian, for me it is a bit over-articulated, but this is actually nit-picking.
In Il Tramonto I prefer to hear a darker and slightly more dramatic voice, but as she performs it is also possible. In her interpretation the piece gets something girly, with a different colour of sadness.
I consider the three songs by Schulhoff to be the undisputed highlight, they are three small masterpieces and it is to be hoped that Kožena will keep them in her repertoire.
Ravel, Shostakovich, Respighi, Schulhoff, Britten
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano),
Malcolm Martineau (piano), Paul Edmund-Davies (flute), Christoph Henschel (violin), Jiří Bárta (cello), Henschel Quartet (DG 4715812)
This made me silent. The melancholy of Dvořák, the typical rhythm of Janáček’s language, the idiosyncrasy of Martinů, all of which makes it impossible to disengage from all this.
What I find most interesting is the cycle Songs for a friend of my country from Martinů, which is having its album premiere here. Martinů composed it in 1940 in Aix-en-Provence, during his flight from the Nazis that would bring him to America, and it is dedicated to Edmond Charles-Roux. The cycle was only discovered in 1996. It is an immense asset to the song repertoire, but: who else sings it? Very moving.
Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů
Magdalena Kožená mezzo-soprano, Graham Johnson piano (DG 4634722)
Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator