This year’s 27th edition of the Concentus Moraviae Festival is history after almost a month of music. The gala closing concert at the Zlín Congress Centre presented a program of songs by Ernest Chausson, Igor Stravinsky, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák. Magdalena Kožená, mezzo-soprano and patron of the show, performed as a soloist. She was joined by pianist and conductor Sir Simon Rattle, flutist and this year’s Artist in Residence Kaspar Zehnder, violinist Giovanni Guzzo, violinist Rahel Maria Rilling, violist Amihai Grosz, cellist Dávid Adorján, and clarinettist Christopher Richards. Dvořák’s songs were specially arranged for this ensemble by the English composer and conductor Duncan Ward.
The evening opened with the delicate Chanson perpétuelle by Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), which is also the composer’s last completed work. The piece was inspired by verses from Charles Cross’s collection Le coffret de santal (The Santal Box) and dedicated to the singer Jeanne Raunay, who managed to perform it before the composer’s death in January 1899. Magdalena Kožená conceived her staging in a rather expressive manner, taking into account the tragic character of the work and the text itself about unfulfilled love. The interpretation was expressively full and dynamically varied, creating some very successful highlights throughout the song. The musicians were excellently integrated with the soloist and with each other, and the result was not only dynamically balanced but also expressively and rhythmically unified and solid.
With Three Songs from William Shakespeare by Igor Stravinsky, the singer moved not only from French to English, but also from late 19th century music to a much more modern composition. Here, too, the soloist stuck to a more expressive expression, which, however, sounded somewhat overwrought and heavy in several places. In particular, When Daisies Pied lacked a certain lightness, while in Full Fadom Five the degree of expressiveness and a certain “playfulness” or lightness was ideally balanced.
The singer’s talent for subtle lyricism was most evident in Johannes Brahms’s Fünf Ophelia-Lieder on texts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Already the opening of the five – Wie erkenn’ ich dein Treulieb? – convinced that working with expression in more tender positions is Magdalena Kožená’s strong point. It was here, for example, that she could apply an impressive transition between a powerful vibrato and only a fleeting embellishment of the notes. Praise should also be given to the superbly constructed dynamic arcs, which she often ended with sweet pianissimo and gentle vibrato. The ideal sound was also aided by the German language, which in her performance sounded more natural in terms of phrasing and diction than the previous English. The musical staging of the instrumentalists was exemplarily uniform. In addition, the musicians ideally emphasized the melancholic mood of the songs by their appropriate use of tone color and dynamics.
The first half of the concert program closed with another Brahms composition, this time Zwei Gesänge für Alt, Viola und Klavier. In addition to the fine singing, one should appreciate the excellent viola solo interpreted by Amihai Grosz – his tone was sweet and lyrical, and the dynamics with rich expression also gave the solo a characteristic sensitivity.
A work by Richard Strauss opened the second half of the program. The piece Drei Lieder der Ophelia aus Hamlet is based, like the one by Brahms, on Shakespeare’s tragedy. However, it is melodically and harmonically much more expressive, which Magdalena Kožená also took advantage of in her staging. The powerful vibrato and sharp dynamic contrasts were characteristic of her musical take on Shakespeare’s verse. Especially the last of the trio of songs – Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloß – provided ideal conditions for these sharp changes in the changing mood of the mad Ophelia.
Leoš Janáček’s playful Nursery Rhymes in a version for voice, clarinet and piano was a welcome change to an otherwise rather serious program. The involvement of the non-performers and their children was also cute. At selected moments they ran on stage and formed the protagonist’s chorus. Here, however, the singer’s perhaps over-expressiveness detracted from the ease and clarity of some of the songs. However, praise should definitely be given to Koza bílá hrušky sbírá (The White Goat Gathers Pears), which was ideally exuberant, yet perfectly balanced in terms of expression and dynamics.
The final piece was a Selection of Songs by Antonín Dvořák arranged by conductor Duncan Ward. There was My Song Again Sounds to Me with Love, Wide Sleeves, When My Old Mother and A String Tuned from Gypsy Melodies, Op. 55, My Heart Often from the cycle Four Songs, Op. 2 and The Maiden Mourned from the cycle In the National Tone, Op. 73. Dvořák – like Brahms – was the best choice in terms of the singer’s strengths. Her naturally velvety color in conjunction with the predominantly lyrical songs was strongest precisely in her handling of tone color, which she also spiced up with a very tasteful vibrato here and there. Also in terms of dynamics, Kožená built longer and musically well-pointed arcs. Ward’s arrangement was created especially for this occasion, and so the combination of all the instrumentalists created a rather large chamber ensemble. The conductor succeeded in preserving the characteristic charge of Dvořák’s music, while balancing the resulting arrangement to give ample space to the individual players. Here they demonstrated excellent interplay and a sense of the music’s momentum. The handling of tone color and the varied dynamic shading, which formed an ideal support for the singer herself, also deserve high praise.
The final concert of the 27th Concentus Moraviae Music Festival was relatively intimate, but this did not detract from its magnificence. The great performance of Magdalena Kožená and all the instrumentalists was a fitting end to the almost month-long journey, which brought, among others, tango, Irish rain and Bulgarian choirs. At the same time it opened the doors of the synagogue in Velké Meziříčí to music. Surely the upcoming 28th edition will not disappoint visitors with its abundance of quality music and dramaturgically varied programs.
Magdalena Kožená / mezzo-soprano
Sir Simon Rattle / piano
Giovanni Guzzo / violin
Rahel Maria Rilling / violin
Amihai Grosz / viola
Dávid Adorján / cello
Kaspar Zehnder / flute
Christopher Richards / clarinet
Ernest Chausson: Eternal Song Op. 37
Igor Stravinsky: Three Songs from William Shakespeare
Richard Strauss: Three Songs of Ophelia from Hamlet
Johannes Brahms: Five Songs of Ophelia
Johannes Brahms: Two songs for voice, viola, and piano
Leoš Janáček: Nursery Rhymes for voice, clarinet and piano
Antonín Dvořák: My Song Sounds to Me Again with Love, Wide Sleeves, My Heart Often, The Maiden Mourned, When My Old Mother, The String Tuned (a selection of songs from Opus Nos. 2, 55 and 73 arranged by Duncan Ward)
Mon 27/6/2022, 19:00, Congress Centre Zlín