Magdalena Koûen·: Love and Longing

The successes of Antonin Dvo?·k’s early months in America — his
appointment as director and professor at the National Conservatoire of Music in
New York in 1892, the gratifying reception of the New World Symphony
the following year — were countered by loss and sadness. The deaths of two
friends, Tchaikovsky and Hans von B¸low, (in November 1893 and February 1894
respectively) and the news of his father’s terminal illness deepened the
composer’s nostalgia for his Bohemian homeland. Profoundly religious,
Dvo?·k sought relief not only in his faith but also in his native language:
his Biblical Songs, composed in 1894 in the space of just a few weeks,
is a cycle of ten settings of the Psalms, the texts being taken from the
Kralicka, the Czech Bible which dates back to 1579.

As a native speaker, Magdalena Koûen· is perfectly placed both to
appreciate the poetic beauty of these texts, and to convey the sincerity of the
settings to the listener through Dvo?·k’s simple yet affecting melodies.
Throughout she demonstrates an instinctive affinity with the composer’s means
of expression, and the understated, restrained manner of her delivery captures
the intently personal nature of Dvo?·k’s expression of faith. Aided by the
superb Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Koûen·’s husband, Sir Simon
Rattle, Koûen· captures myriad moods, her tone ceaselessly velvety.

The declamatory focus of the opening song, ‘Oblak a mr·kota jest v?kol
n?ho’ (Clouds and darkness are round about him) is typical of the
controlled intensity of Koûen·’s performance; the soaring recitative-like
vocal pronouncements are punctuated by dramatic pictorial commentary by the
players of the Berlin Philharmonic. In ‘Skr˝öe m· a paveza m· Ty jsi’
(You are my hiding place and my shield) the exquisite tenderness of the
woodwind and high string accompaniment evokes the calm trust expressed in the
text, but Rattle is alert to every twist and nuance of emotion, finding darker
colours and impassioned movement to match the changes of timbre as Koûen·
conveys the interior intensity of the lines.

Woodwind solos entwine sweetly with the more sinuous vocal melody in
‘Slyö, Û Boûe, slyö modlitbu mou’ (Give ear to my prayer, O God) — of
particular note is some wonderfully mellifluous clarinet playing; as the voice
rises and becomes more rapturous, ‘My heart is sore pained within me; and the
terrors of death are fallen upon me’, Koûen· never exaggerates the emotions
of the text, her honeyed tone always pure and the sentiments convincingly
honest. The mezzo-soprano’s lustrous dark lower register is used to magical
effect in ‘Hospodin jest m?j past˝?’ (The Lord is my shepherd); and, the
sincerity of the plainchant-like opening is deepened by the subsequent
enrichment of the instrumental fabric, and the folk-like nuances of the melodic
line. The Bohemian idiom dominates ‘Boûe, Boûe, pÌse? novou’ (I will
sing a new song unto you, O God), which begins with a burst of bright optimism
from the full orchestra, as Koûen· introduces a bright nimbleness into the
lilting melody.

‘Slyö, Û Boûe, vol·nÌ mÈ’ (Hear my cry, O God) is more
contemplative and the seamless vocal lines have a powerful yet restrained
intensity. ‘P?i ?ek·ch babylonsk˝ch’ (By the rivers of
Babylon) ranges across diverse moods whose emotional impact results as much
from Rattle’s marvellous attention to the details of the instrumental texture
as to Koûen·’s affectionately inflected vocal line. ‘How shall we sing
the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, she asks, the voice plunging on
‘strange’ before the accompaniment warms to provide some hint of

After the more rhetorical ‘Popat?iû na mne a smiluj se nade mnou’
(Turn you unto me and have mercy upon me), a folk-like ardency enriches
‘Pozdvihuji o?Ì sv˝ch k hor·m’ (I will lift up mine eyes until the
hills), before, in the concluding ‘ZpÌvejte Hospodinou pÌse? novou’
(Sing unto the Lord a new song) Koûen·’s ringing pentatonic melodies, the
jubilant horn interjections and vibrant pizzicato strings bring the cycle to an
affirmative, exuberant conclusion.

Koûen· and the Berlin Philharmonic slip with matching effortlessness into
a more exotic, sensuous mode in Maurice Ravel’s magically evocative
ShÈhÈrazade; the orchestral players relish the composer’s
luxurious but sharply defined sonorities, above which the mezzo-soprano — her
French clearly enunciated and idiomatic — soars and floats, paradoxically
blending innocence and ecstasy.

Only an overture remains of the young Ravel’s first operatic flirtation
with this subject, but in 1903 he returned to the tales of the oriental
seducer. At the time, Ravel belonged to a bohemian artistic society, Les
, which aimed to promote cutting-edge culture; when one of his
fellow Apaches Tristan Klingsor (born Arthur LeclËre), published a
collection of poems entitled ShÈhÈrazade, Ravel eagerly set three of
these poems: ‘Asie’, ‘La fl˚te enchantÈe’, and ‘L’indiffÈrent’.

‘Asie’, substantially longer than the other two songs, was originally
the concluding number. The text roves through a series of alluring, exotic
experiences which the traveller desires and imagines, the dazzling instrumental
realisation of such temptations tempered by a tone of pragmatic yearning. The
inevitable introductory melody played by the ‘oriental’ oboe is arrestingly
enticing, and Koûen·’s recitation, in which she imagines Asia as
‘wonderland of nursery tales’ is bewitching — the French text rolling
like syrup, the voice swooping to the depths, ‘in her full forest of
mystery’ — while the gamelan-like instrumental colours tremble and

As the wanderer imagines the unfamiliar, exhilarating travels which beckon,
Rattle’s players provide an instrumental complement — violent sweeping harp
glissandi, sensuously rocking string motifs; airy flutes and tremulous viola
motifs, whisk us to Syria, Persia, India, China. Koûen·’s mezzo soprano is
gloriously uplifting and mellow; and the climactic vocal phrases, ‘Je
voudrais voir des roses et du sang;/ Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien
de haine’ (I should like to see roses and blood;/ I should like to see death
from love or from hate) are accompanied by some disturbingly apocalyptic
instrumental surges.

Then, there is silence; the traveller will return from wild places and
relate her adventures to those ‘interested in dreams’ — her wild
escapades contained within an evocative cello solo which articulates her tales
with mournful poignancy.

In ‘La fl˚te enchantÈe’ the fluid transition from and between voice
and flute is stunning, an uncanny embodiment of the song’s final lines: ‘Il
me semble que chaque note s’envoie/ De la fl˚te vers ma joue/ Comme un
mystÈrieux baiser’ (Each note seems to me to take flight from the flute to
my cheek like a mysterious kiss). Mesmerised, then suddenly energised upon
awakening, Koûen· is by turns capricious and then languorous; the flute has
the final word — an insouciant fragment, dissolving like an imaginary caress.

In the instrumental passage which opens ‘L’indiffÈrent’, Rattle
establishes a dreamy air, but one which becomes ever more infused with
melancholy loneliness as the song proceeds. The dusky warmth of Koûen·’s
rich mezzo suggests a touching desire for human contact, but the tumbling fall
of the command, ‘Entre!’, is refuted by the wistful, resigned vision of the
stranger moving past and beyond the threshold.

Mahler’s Five R¸ckert songs are similarly dramatized with subtle but
telling artistry. Koûen·’s voice assumes yet more hues, by turns earthbound
and ethereal, the fairly brisk tempo and breathily suspended instrumental
support of ‘Liebst du um Schˆnheit’ (If you love for beauty) conveying
youthful impetuousness. The fleeting ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ (Do
not look at my songs) allows Koûen· to make much of the agile lightness of
her voice; following the closing promise that when the rich honeycombs have
been carried to the light of day, ‘you shall taste them first!’ is
unnervingly enigmatic.

After the burnished, shadowy ambience of ‘Um Mitterbacht’ (At midnight),
the translucent eloquence of ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I breathed a
gentle fragrance) quite literally transports the listener to another world.
‘Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen’ (I am Lost to the World) is perhaps
the most movingly beautiful of all the songs on this disc; the performers are
in perfect accord, and the result is deeply stirring.

Throughout this wonderful performance, Koûen·’s melodic and linguistic
ease create a sense of artlessness which belies profound musicianship and
skill. The technicians of Deutsche Grammophon display similar levels of
excellence: the quality of sound is a pristine as the recording studio, but the
immediacy conveys the inimitable frisson of the concert hall.

Claire Seymour

Recording details:

Love and Longing: Dvo?·k, BiblickÈ pisnÍ Op.99;
Ravel, ShÈhÈrazade; Mahler, F¸nf Lieder nach Gedichten von
Friedrich R¸ckert
. Magdalena Koûen·, mezzo soprano; Simon Rattle,
conductor. Berliner Philharmoniker. Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0065 8 [CD].

image_description=Magdalena Koûen·: Love and Longing
product_title=Magdalena Koûen·: Love and Longing
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 0065 8 [CD]