Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Bartok, Dvorak, Janacek & Musorgsky

Janacek: Moravian Folk Songs; In the Mists
Dvorak: Biblical Songs Op. 99; Songs my mother taught me
Musorgsky: Detskaya (The Nursery);
Bartok: Falun (Village Scenes)

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano) & András Schiff (piano)

Wigmore Hall 6 February 2010

We first heard Magdalena Kožená at Wigmore Hall in 2001, in a recital which demonstrated her individual approach to repertoire, with an outstanding response to the 'deadpan prosody' of Ravel's Histoires naturelles (a link to The Nursery tonight) and several of Janácek's Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs, heard again nine years on. Then 'beauty of tone took precedence over diction', but that no longer applies; both are in perfect balance - the voice has gained in power, but that is controlled with discretion.

The Folk Poetry in Songs epitomised "word-shaping" throughout this recital and in particular Janácek's derivation of so much of his music in Moravian speech-rythms.

Ten Biblical Songs of Dvorak looked dauntingly many in prospect, but they proved compelling and sufficiently varied in tone to be as worthy a recital set as the Four Serious Songs of Brahms - enjoy two of them, in orchestral dress, on YouTube.

Placing Schiff's solo spot, In the Mists (1912), in the middle of the first half indicated that we were not to think of him as "an accompanist". It is a substantial work in Janácek's piano oeuvre, laden with depressive feelings in a difficult time when the composer had lost his daughter and his operas were still rejected in Prague, and I found his account of it totally convincing.

Bartok's surprisingly infrequently heard Village Scenes (1924) were given with panache and no half-measures in Kožená's screams, required to depict local Slovakian life in all its variety and vitality.

For Musorgsky's marvellous The Nursery I must declare an interest; I doubt if anyone knows those songs better. I coached my small son, boy treble Simon, in them for his first BBC recital; we subsequently recorded them, from Musorgsky's original version, for an acclaimed Turnabout LP with Steuart Bedford...

I have heard numerous performances over the years and collected all recordings of The Nursery available in the '60s, most as arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov - one orchestrated, Oda Slobodskaya's in Russian (she coached Simon), Boris Christoff's in falsetto, Irmgard Seefried in German (one of the best), Elisabeth Söderström at Wigmore Hall delightful, but she relied upon long spoken introductions to get them across...

Most recently the operatic contralto Eva Podles essayed them at Wigmore Hall in Russian; the language barrier, and her weighty voice which could not suggest a small's boy's, proved insurmountable.

Most of the Russian language performances were supplied with rather awful English translations so, with the help of native experts, we made our own, which Simon sang in what we believe was idiomatic English for a child of Musorgsky's time...

This is preludial to stating that Magdalena Kožená's assumption of Musorgsky's little boy, his nurse and his mother was about the very best we'd heard, and Andras Schiff's partnership in them ideal - and so, indeed, was his perspicacious playing throughout the evening.

This great recital demonstrates how subjective is musical criticism. Below I link to a hostile review of Schiff's part in this recital and Kožená's supposed limitations, by Michael Church in The Independent. Our opinion and his are irreconcilable...*

Church found that both musicians "missed the essential lightness" of The Nursery, with Schiff "preferring to stay within his Germanic great-pianist comfort-zone" etc, so maybe he'd be happier with ours on CD which, with its companion disc featuring Szymanowski in impeccable Polish, have a strong claim to being amongst the very best long deleted LPs which have failed to achieve re-release on CD...

When the BBC broadcasts this evening's concert on 18 February (and it will remain available thereafter on-line on R3's Listen Again) our readers will have an excellent opportunity to make up their own minds.

And surely this programme will be recorded commercially by Magdalena Kožená & András Schiff, hopefully offering too a more sympathetic photo of them together than Wigmore Hall's images above!

A last tip; Church thought Schiff's "the most unmagical rendition of Janácek’s ‘In the Mists’ I’ve ever heard". Well, YouTube offers wonderful opportunties to check this, with Mikhael Rudi's account to follow bar-by-bar against the score; Severin von Eckardstein also and even the great Janácek pioneer Rudolf Firkusny too... What riches the internet has to offer!

Peter Grahame Woolf

* q.v. Sebastian Petit's five-star review in WOS