Magdalena Kozen·, Wigmore Hall

Wandering nonchalantly on the Wigmore Hall stage, as they strummed and
struck the opening bars of Filippo’s Vitali’s fiery ‘O bel
lumi’ (‘O beautiful eyes’), Private Musicke resembled a band
of medieval minstrels, relaxed troubadours enjoying and celebrating their art.
They and Kozen· proceeded to entertain, surprise and seduce us with a
performance of seventeenth-century songs and instrumental works by Monteverdi
and his lesser known contemporaries. Variations of tone and colour, pace and
texture — created as much by Kozen·’s vocal variety as by the
ever-changing, inventively-enriching combinations of violone, guitar,
colascione, theorbo, harp, lira da gamba and myriad percussion —
delineated all possible shades of passion, pleasure, poignancy and pain. The
love of which these ‘letters’ speak is multifaceted and protean,
transmuting from religious to maternal, from fraternal to amatory, from
unrequited to erotic; moreover, Kozen· relished the exploration of the
boundaries where affection modulates to disdain or obsessive desire turns to
vengeful hatred.

Many of these songs possess both a sweet simplicity and more troubling
complexity, none more so than Tarquino Merula’s ‘Canzonetta
spirituale sopra all nanna’, ostensibly a gentle lullaby sung by the
Virgin Mary, but, as it evolves into a anguished lament, revealing disturbing
fear of impending loss and dark portents of death and despair. Dissonant
semitones which rustle the sparse serenity of the opening grow to become
insistent hammer blows in the bass, evoking both the mother’s racking
sobs and the alarmingly violent rocking of the cradle: ‘Ah, in your
divine breast/ my sweet love and delight,/ a cruel, treacherous spear/ will
strike a fatal blow.’ As the mother’s distress overwhelms her, so
the accompaniment texture is augmented, taking on a distinctly Moorish
colouring; the refrain, ‘My beloved, my love’, echoes through the
song, increasingly imploring and inconsolable. Surprising dynamic surges inject
further unrest, but in the final lines — ‘what shall I do?/ I shall
gaze on my love:/ I shall stay with my head bowed/ as long as my Baby
sleeps.’ — the translucency of Kozen·’s upper register brings
about an uneasy peace.

These songs may not be technically ‘difficult’, but Kozen· is
able to explore their textual and emotional intricacy, and one senses that the
‘meaning’ she finds is often personal. However, pain and poignancy
are certainly balanced by pleasure and joy, and if there is much aggrieved
reflection there is also excitement and energy, not least because of the way
that the songs segued into one another. Thus, the exclamatory tone and rhythmic
vitality of Caccini’s lover’s lament, ‘Odi, Euterpe’
(‘Hear, Euterpe’), culminated in a joyous cry which overspilled
into the boisterous instrumental ‘Caravanda Ciacona’ by Luis de
BriÁeÒo; and, Giovanni de Macque’s ‘Capriccio stravagante’
formed a seamless link with the subsequent ‘Aurilla mia’ (‘My
Aurilla’) by Girolamo Kapsberger, triplets and syncopations effortlessly
creating forward momentum.

Renowned for her rich, resonant beauty of tone and seamless legato phrasing,
Kozen· is not afraid to experiment, and to place sincerity of expression above
‘mere’ vocal loveliness. And, there could be no doubting the pain
experienced by the poet-speaker of Sigismondo D’India’s
‘Cruda Amarylli’, as the soprano swelled sharply through the
opening syllable, ‘Cruda’ (‘cruel’), and injected a
bitter irony as she described Amaryllis, ‘purer and more lovely/ than a
snow-white flower’. Twists to the minor tonality, enhanced by vocal
emphasis, suggested the elusiveness of the ‘unhearing viper’, and
surprising harmonic diversions brought drama and rhetoric to the singer’s
provocative and self-defining assertion, ‘I’ mi morrÚ
tacendo’ (‘In silence I shall die’).

Similarly, D’India’s ‘Ma Che? Squallido e Oscuro’ (‘Though
you are Wretched’) is a rhetorical tour de force: major/minor
oscillations, a declamatory style ornamented with melismatic flourishes
(‘il furto e ‘l temerario ardire’ — ‘my
bold desires and reckless daring’), enriching orchestrations (‘Che
sÏ caldi sperai, vuo’ pur rapire’ — ‘the cold
kisses that I hoped would be warm’) and startling chromaticism combined
to communicate the lover’s agony at the impending death of his beloved.
The astonishing contra-motion which concludes the song, the bass descending as
the voice makes a winding chromatic ascent, was rendered even more astonishing
as it was breathlessly followed by the lightness and joy of Kapsberger’s
‘Felici gl’animi’ (Happy the souls’) which, despite its
rhythmic pleasure and animation, could not quite dispel the disquieting echoes
of the former song.

Kozen· rose to the peak of her powers in Barbara Strozzi’s ‘L’Eraclito
Amoroso’ (‘Amorous Heraclitus’) in which the ancient Greek
philosopher’s sobs and sighs of anger and despair alternate alarmingly.
Kozen· exploited every dissonance, every textural or dynamic variation, every
opportunity for rubato and flexibility, exaggerating and manipulating
each element and using thrilling ornamentation to communicate the
protagonist’s distress. An astonishing descent to the brooding, resonant
depths of her register was frightening in its unalleviated melancholy:
‘Let all sorrow assail me,/ all grief last for ever,/ let all misfortune
so afflict me/ tha tit kills and buries me.’

The instrumental dances which were interspersed throughout the programme did
much more than simply vary the pace and mood. Led by guitarist Pierre Pitzl,
the players missed no occasion to draw the tiny threads of the song to the
surface of the accompaniment; one can only marvel at the patterns and motifs
they located and exploited, improvising and inventing with effortless skill and
insight — one sensed that they could go on spinning these songs for

In the CD note which accompanies the recent Deutsche Grammophon recording of
these Lettere
, Kozen· reminds us that she “grew up with this
music”, joining with a lutenist to perform these secular songs while
studying at Brno University and revelling in the creative freedom the music,
with its lack of strict notational instructions, allowed her. She and Private
Musicke certainly achieve their intention to take us back to the popular
origins of the songs: “It comes from a time when there was no equivalent
to our divide between classical and pop music; it was simply the music everyone
heard and sang.” Certainly, she and her colleagues convincingly conveyed
the universality of the sentiments and the ‘naturalness’ of their
expression. Indeed, at times, the emotional intensity combined with imaginative
liberty was astonishingly reminiscent of the modern-day rock concert, as the
music seemed to capture and, by turns, ease, intrigue and bewitch the souls of
the listeners in the Wigmore Hall.

There are, of course, other ways of performing this repertoire — after
all, Kozen· stresses that they have deliberately made their own arrangements,
freely exploring different instrumentations — and some may prefer less
overt showmanship and a more reflective exploration of text and music. On
occasion Kozen· retreated to the rear of the platform, her voice one among
many; but elsewhere she advanced to the very forefront of the centre stage, and
occasionally her voice seemed almost too large for the performance space and
context, as if her own performance threatened to take precedence over the
material itself. However, the collaborators’ obvious delight in each
other’s performances and in the collectivity of such music-making was
infections. Kozen· and Private Musicke presented a wholly committed and
coherent vision, one which flourished and grew in a live, evolving exchange
with the audience. And, in so doing, they released the latent drama in these
small, intimate forms, in an astonishingly rich and rewarding performance.

Claire Seymour


Vitali: ‘O bei lumi’
D’India: ‘Cruda Amarilli’
Caccini: ‘Odi, Euterpe, il dolce canto’
Briceno: Caravanda Ciacona
Merula: ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nonna’
Sanz: Canarios
D’India: ‘Torna il sereno Zefiro’
Marini: ‘Con le stelle in ciel che mai’
Foscarini: Passamezzo
Monteverdi: ‘SÌ dolce Ë’l tormento’
Macque: Capriccio stravagante
Kapsberger: ‘Aurilla mia’
D’India ‘Ma che? squallid’e oscuro’
Kapsberger: ‘Felici gl’animi’
Foscarini: Ciaccona
Strozzi: ‘L’Eraclito amoroso’
Ribayaz: Espanioletta
Merula: ‘Folle Ë ben che si crede’
Monteverdi: ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’

image_description=Magdalena Kozen· [Photo by Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]
product_title=Magdalena Kozen·, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Magdalena Kozen·, mezzo-soprano; Private Musicke. Wigmore Hall, London,
Wednesday 2 February 2011.
product_id=Above: Magdalena Kozen· [Photo by Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]