It’s extraordinary how the symbiosis of spirit and rightness of timbre between an artist and a composer can turn a recital around. The Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena is not a natural recitalist tending to overwork and over-illustrate texts with a physical manner and overactive hands better suited to the stage. But when she and the inspirational Mitsuko Uchida arrived at Messiaen’s Poems pour Mi the plangency of Kozena’s tone and metallic brilliance of Uchida’s pianistic tintabulations found a kinship that had eluded us all evening. They should have given us the whole cycle, not just Book II.
These highly original and immensely seductive songs are all about ecstasy. They are a response, as always with Messiaen, to the omnipotence of God and the power of love and a gleaming light-shedding directness is what they require. Kozena’s whoops of joy, be it in the physical sensations of “Le Collier” (“The Necklace”) where a lover’s arms are made synonymous with precious stones, the martial stridency of “Les deux guerriers” with its iron-clad chest tones, or the jazzy jubilation of “Prière exaucée”. Uchida’s birdsong was a ringing endorsement.
The rest of the evening was decidedly one-sided with Uchida subtly romancing the songs in ways that seemed way beyond Kozena’s reach. Why, for instance, did she not pick up on Uchida’s old-world Viennese charm in Mahler’s Wunderhorn song “Rheinlegendchen”? Why the unwarranted emphases pulling the line out of shape? And where were the two voices – the mother and child – in “Das irdische Leben”? Phrasing, both here and later in Mahler’s Rückert Lieder, was invariably unsustained, choppy and fitful – finely shaded legato singing was not in evidence and dynamics rarely dropped below mezzo-forte where the voice started to assert itself.
Perhaps it was Kozena’s current date with Carmen which temped her to include so much Debussy in the programme – but her dodgy French is no more idiomatic than her German. The Paul Verlaine songs Ariettes oubliée faired better than those of Pierre Louÿs on account of their innate theatricality. But the sensibilities of the songs didn’t feel or sound compatible with the voice and where Uchida shimmered and beguiled and even smiled Kozena’s chilly timbre seemed almost to stare us out.
One moment of deafening silence at the heart of Mahler’s Rückert song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” almost achieved the stillness that was so elusive in Kozena’s singing – but it was still Uchida’s barely audible final note that lingered longest in the memory.