Friday October 30th, 2016 - Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (above) singing splendidly in Hector Berlioz's Les Nuits d'été with The New York Philharmonic; Maestro Alan Gilbert has paired the song cycle with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade making for an evening of sensuous, exotic delights...beautifully played.
Tonight marked my fifth hearing of the Berlioz songs performed live: the first was by the unforgettable Tatiana Troyanos at Tanglewood in 1985. In 2007, the delectable Kate Lindsey sang the cycle in a recital at the Goethe Institute: a ravishing performance. A rare opportunity to hear the songs divided up between three singers of differing voice types came in 2012 when the Juilliard Orchestra under Emmanuel Villaume programmed them, paired with the prelude to LOHENGRIN - that was an evocative evening! Most recently - just last week, in fact - Avery Amereau, a distinctive young contralto, sang the Nuits d'été with the American Classical Orchestra.
Ms. Kožená's performance this evening was a revelation: the tall mezzo-soprano - in a marvelous collaboration with Maestro Gilbert and his incredible musicians - offered an interpretation of the beloved songs that was uniquely her own. Her wide-ranging voice was on peak form, with enviable evenness throughout the range, and she is an intriguing story-teller, both in terms of word colourings and the expressive use of her hands.
Clad in a black gown shot thru with gold, and featuring a plunging neckline, the auburn-haired singer launched the Berlioz cycle with a lovely and light-hearted Villanelle. Her engaging physicality and clear delight in sharing her prodigious vocal gifts with us set the tone for her entire performance. The voice is wonderfully clear from top to bottom, richly feminine in feeling, and she has a delightful sense of spontaneity, as if the words and music have just come into her mind and she simply must share them with us.
In the evocative Spectre de la Rose, Ms. Kožená's dynamic range came into play; while in general her rendering the songs seemed somewhat more extroverted emotionally that others I have heard, her choices of when to hone the sound down to a sweet softness were all the more alluring for their unpredictability.
In Spectre, her singing had a very personal, intimate aspect; how delicately the trembling strings responded to Maestro Gilbert's touch at "Mon destin fut digne d'envie...", and how spell-binding the singer's sense of hushed mystery as the song drew to its close.
Ms. Kožená's impassioned, intense "Ma belle amie est morte..." ("My beautiful beloved is dead...") ideally captured the mood of Sur les lagunes, and the sounding of the horn added at once to the forlorn atmosphere. The voice traced thru the poem with an utterly natural flow of perfumed tone; Ms. Kožená dipped down to the low F-sharp on the word "linceul" ('shroud') with a dusky, smoky quality. Then she unleashed waves of despairing passion, bringing the lament to a fabulous end. The audience could not resist breaking in with applause here.
It was in Absence that Ms. Kožená took a different interpretive path from others who have sung these songs. Singers like to bring forth their piano/pianissimo gradations on the cries of "Reviens, reviens.." and that is certainly always a thrill to hear. But Ms. Kožená first sang them as a command. At the second repeat, she commenced the upper note in straight-tone and then took a remarkable crescendo, flooding the hall with emotion; for the third setting of the words, her voice was suffused with a gorgeous sense of restlessness and longing. Throughout Absence, the singer also communicated with a lovely gestural language. Absolutely breath-taking.
The orchestra played a particularly savorable role in Au cimetière, and the singer brought a wealth of dynamic detail to her story-telling here, with a depth of despair at "Oh, never again will I go near that tomb when the sombre cloak of night descends..." Her shrewd use of straight tone at just the right moments brought an added dimension of hopeless bereavement to the song.
At last, all was joyous as Ms. Kožená commenced L'Ile innconue. She voice sailing free, clear, and warm, she paused only to savor the irony of "Cette rive, ma chère, on ne la connaît guère au pays des amours" as the poet tells his young lover that the shores of the land where love is always faithful are...elusive.
Magdalena Kožená's performance of the Berlioz tonight was one of the finest things I've heard in the last twenty years: a beautiful voice and a great artist.
Above: setting designed by Léon Bakst for the Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade
After the interval, a fantastic performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade; how cunning of Maestro Gilbert to program this work with the Berlioz!
Composed in 1888, Rimsky-Korsakov's score was taken up by Serge Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes' 1910 Paris season at the Palais Garnier. The score, the story (which climaxes with an orgy and ends with a mass murder), and the brilliant settings by Léon Bakst created a sensation, as did Nijinsky's dancing as the Favourite Slave. Michel Fokine's choreography mostly steered clear of the classical ballet vocabulary; the work might be viewed as a precursor of dramatic modern dance. The composer's widow was reportedly not happy with the manipulation of her husband's music for sordid purposes.
Most likely Madame Rimsky-Korsakov would have greatly enjoyed tonight's performance of her spouse's work, for Maestro Gilbert and his players played the score for all it's worth. The massive, grand passages and the more delicate, coloristic moments alternated in a most impressive and enjoyable rendering, and throughout the work, solo phrases for cello, horn, flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon were superbly played and really pricked up our ears. Trombones and muted trumpets also had their say, all to grand effect.
The composer has been especially generous to the solo violin in this work, and The Philharmonic's concertmaster, Frank Huang, played ravishingly. Each featured passage, whether languid or lively, was immaculately played, and as the work drew to an end, Mr. Huang sustained some stratospheric ppp tones with sweet clarity and steadiness. As the audience erupted in a shouting ovation at the end, Maestro Gilbert immediately signaled Mr. Huang to rise and bask in the cheers of the audience and the applause of his onstage colleagues. A lovely ending to a grand night of music-making.