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One of the toughest tricks for a singer to pull off is putting a fresh face on each composer in a program. All too often, the Handel starts sounding like the Mozart, which in turn takes on too much of the Verdi and it all becomes indistinguishable.
For a fascinating lesson in how to do it right, listen to mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená's new album Love and Longing. Recorded live in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic, Kožená sings with beauty and comprehensive expression in vastly different styles of music from the sumptuous, Asian-spiced Shéhérazade by Ravel, to the darker, colder Rückert-Lieder by Mahler, to the tender and self-searching Biblical Songs by Dvorak.
Kožená, a Czech native, is a perfect proponent for Dvorak's rarely heard — especially in these orchestrated versions — songs with texts from the Book of Psalms. Dvorak wrote them in the spring of 1894 while heading a newly formed conservatory in New York, seemingly infusing his music with the daydreams of a homesick Bohemian.
"Sing unto the Lord a new song" sports a folksy dance beat, while the wistful harmonies in "Give ear to my prayer" sound straight out of the "New World" Symphony (another of Dvorak's American creations), as clarinets and flutes intertwine with Kožená's urgent pleas. With all of her thoughtful care for color and language, Kožená must carry these songs close to her heart. As a captive Jew in the song "By the Rivers of Babylon," she expresses three emotions at one time: the firmness of faith in her phrasing and both sadness and worry in her timbre and shading.
On the CD, at least 15 seconds of silence separate the end of the Dvorak from the start of the Ravel. And that's a good thing, because to hear the alluring oboe solo slither around Kožená's plaintive cries of "Asie, Asie" is to enter another world completely. You can practically smell the incense and feel the heat of the night air. In the third section, "L'indifférent," Kožená's languid phrasing is practically intoxicating. Note what she does with the single word "Entre" (heard at 2:07 into the audio below). It's as if whispered through a silken veil. And when she gives the sound a little boost, then a sensual little vibrato, you're ready to follow her anywhere.
The album leads, finally, to Mahler, and the emotion-laden music he wrote to five poems by Friedrich Rückert around 1901. Bees buzz in strings and winds in "Blick mir nicht in die Lieder," and lonely clarinets and flutes set a bleak scene for Kožená's refined, coppery tones in "Um Mitternacht."
Throughout the album, the amazing Berlin Philharmonic, with its agility and immense palette of colors, makes a perfect partner to Kožená's thorough engagement with the texts. And perhaps it's not too surprising, considering that Philharmonic conductor Simon Rattle and Kožená are partners in marriage. It makes Love and Longing truly a labor of love.