“She catches every mood and inflection with spontaneous immediacy…”
On the face of it, the three composers represented on Magdalena KoΩená’s latest album have next to nothing in common. Pentatone’s title ‘Nostalgia’ might be apt enough for the Brahms selection, though without nostalgia the whole German song edifice would collapse. What links KoΩená’s choices, as Laura Tunbridge points out in an illuminating note, is that each of the three composers draws on and transforms European folk traditions. In Village Scenes Bartók puts an acerbic slant on Slovakian folk tunes to create a miniature rustic Frauenliebe und -leben: no tragic ending here, but no rapt hero-worship either. As you might guess, the Czech mezzo is in prime form in songs that could have been written for her. She catches every mood and inflection with spontaneous immediacy, from the simple tenderness of ‘The Bride’ to the mordant humour and growing delirium of ‘Wedding’, abetted by Yefim Bronfman’s brilliant, boldly coloured pianism.
The lurking threat of the big bad wolf links the last of the Village Scenes to The Nursery, Mussorgsky’s affectionate but utterly unsentimental (and un-nostalgic) ‘scenes from childhood’. Again, KoΩená is in her element. Avoiding the twin traps of caricature and winsomeness, she displays a delightful comic touch, whether in the child’s wheedling self-pity in ‘In the Corner’ or the mounting confusion of ‘Bedtime Prayer’. She deftly characterises the exasperated nurse, and finds a velvet warmth for the mother in ‘The Hobby Horse’. Crucially, too, KoΩená also musters the purity and soprano lightness for little Misha, by turns endearingly innocent, manipulative and plain malicious. She and Bronfman have a natural feeling for pace, and understand that Mussorgsky’s vocal lines often approximate to heightened speech. Yet she never compromises vocal production for dramatic effect. Mussorgsky’s artistic credo was ‘Truth before Beauty’. With KoΩená we get both.