Is there any power couple in classical music to rival Sir Simon Rattle, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená? They’ve performed together often in the world’s great opera houses, but to see them on the intimate stage of the Wigmore Hall was a rare treat. They brought with them four superb string players from Germany, two of them from Rattle’s own orchestra, plus flautist Kaspar Zehnder, and Andrew Marriner, principal clarinettist of the orchestra Rattle will soon be leading, the London Symphony Orchestra.
So, all friends together. You could imagine them playing hausmusik in someone’s living room, in proper German fashion, and this concert felt as if they’d been performing these pieces for ages and were now graciously allowing us to eavesdrop. Rattle was all smiles, with none of the nervousness you’d expect from someone venturing into the unfamiliar role of pianist. Kožená is a naturally intense, highly-strung performer, but even she seemed relaxed as she came on stage – which was remarkable, given that she was about to sing eight sets of songs back-to-back, in four languages, ranging from comic nursery rhymes to black tragedy.
In fact none of the eight pieces was truly weighty, or virtuoso in its demands. Several of the pieces were about love and loss, with two settings of Ophelia’s sad, deranged little ditties, from Strauss and Brahms. Kožená seemed to vibrate in sympathy with these songs, and though the voice doesn’t flare magnificently in the upper register as it once did, she made the songs very moving. The most extreme moment was her despairing outcry in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) where the singer warns: “Do not trust the whites.” This she captured wonderfully; the little throwaway line at the end felt a bit ponderous.
Humour isn’t really Kožená’s thing, and the comic scenes about scheming little moles, etc, in Janáček’s Říkadla (Nursery Rhymes) felt dutiful in their harshness (though Rattle at the piano did his utmost to liven things). Better were the three quirky, angular settings of Shakespeare by Stravinsky, which were as light and exquisitely tuned and dancing as they needed to be.
Much the best things in the evening were those songs where Kožená could spin a beautiful creamy line in her lower range, cushioned affectionately by the assembled players. The most sheerly beautiful moments came in two songs by Brahms, where violist Amihai Grosz, Rattle at the piano, and Kožená all intertwined their phrases with lovely, unforced grace.
At the end, all seven players and Kožená came together for six songs by Dvořák, beautifully arranged by Duncan Ward. They wrapped us in nostalgia, as if Kožená’s native land were our own.