Magdalena Kožená/Mitsuko Uchida – review

Wigmore Hall, London

Now in her late 30s, the Czech mezzo Magdalena Kožená's voice is changing, growing in size and power, though losing some of its surface beauty in the process. In this lengthy and varied programme encompassing Mahler, Debussy and Messiaen, there were recurring problems higher up, with her tone hardening and occasionally developing a strident quality, though her middle register retained its freshness and warmth.

But Kožená was not always able to manage her increased sound without sacrificing subtleties along the way. The intimacy of Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis and Ariettes Oubliées, with their admissions of love and remembrances of evanescent emotion, was too often inundated with tone, extinguishing the delicacy of their texts and their minutely observed feelings. Messiaen's second book of Poèmes pour Mi went better, the individual songs' self-dramatised rhetoric more suited to Kožená's broad-brush-stroke approach.

The evening's real musical distinction belonged to the pianist, Mitsuko Uchida. Ironically, much of her material – the Messiaen group, the two songs sampled from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and all but one of his Five Rückert Lieder – is better known in its respective composers' own orchestrations. (Max Puttmann orchestrated Mahler's Liebst du um Schönheit.) Performing these songs on the piano often involves the near-impossible task of bringing out colours more fully explored in their orchestral versions; Mahler's own piano writing can sound ineffective.

Yet Uchida made it sound surprisingly idiomatic. Her infinitesimal attention to nuanced colours and textures in the Debussy was even more special – though admittedly his piano writing works, however difficult it may be to realise. Throughout she was fully supportive of her vocal partner, and seemed considerably more relaxed.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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