Magdalena Kožená and Mitsuko Uchida at Wigmore Hall

One performer exudes profundity of thought and subtlety of rhetoric: acute attention to detail, technical finesse and delicate restraint characterise her musicianship.  The other has a voice which glows with radiance and is as creamy as silk from top to bottom, and she leaves no word or image uncherished or untouched.  Together, pianist Mitsuko Uchida and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená make for a heady evening, especially when the recital is perfumed with Symbolist-scented sensuality.

This was the second presentation of the duo’s programme of French song at Wigmore Hall.  There were three Debussy cycles, beginning with Trois Chansons de Bilitis (1892-93) in which Pierre Louÿs’ eros-thanatos imagery immediately established an erotically charged mood.  In ‘La Flûte de Pan’, the preciousness of the natural world was captured by Uchida’s murmurs and fleeting arabesques and enriched by Kožená’s soft warmth.  The final stanza was paradoxically both innocent and sensual: “Ma mère ne croira jamais que je suis restée si longtemps à chercher ma ceinture perdue.” (My mother will never believe that I stayed out so long to look for my lost sash.) 

Sashaying through the quasi-recitative melodies, Kožená’s tone was direct, fresh and focused; only the lightest vibrato, all feeling communicated through shifts of weight and colour.  Her mezzo may lack chesty resonance or glossiness at the top, but similar manipulations of intensity made the phrasal climaxes of ‘La Chevelure’ shiver, as her voice blended with the piano’s gentle pedalling, while the stillness and, at times, silence of the latter, especially in the final stanza, created a wonderful calm.  ‘Le Tombeau des naïades’ was rhythmically fluid, and although I’m not sure that Kožená’s French diction made us hear the words as much as we ‘felt’ the music, there was a relaxing dreaminess.

‘Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire’ followed.  These songs date from a little earlier (1887-89), a period during which Debussy travelled to Bayreuth and attended performances of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde, and these operas echo in the quasi-drunken chromaticism and enharmonic slipperiness of Debussy’s musical language.  To be honest, at times the intensity, even in the most intimate moments, was almost too much!  Baudelaire’s imagery, when saturated in almost overwrought Wagnerian waters, can leave one breathless.  The final song, ‘La mort des amants’ (The death of the lovers), speaks of ‘beds drenched in light scents’, hearts with are ‘two mighty torches’, and the exchange of ‘a single radiant glance, like a long sob laden with farewells’ on ‘an evening of pink and mystic blue’.  Here, erotic fantasy and carefully graded precision combined with potent effect. 

The duo captured the irregularity and strangeness of Debussy’s settings of Baudelaire, the oscillations between fragility and fullness, between inwardness and flamboyance.  ‘Le jet d’eau’ (The fountain) was especially captivating, the threads of the vocal line spun so carefully above the piano’s waves and tricklings, which Uchida etched with brilliant clarity, the piano dynamic somehow oozing sumptuousness.  The ending of this song, pianissimo but ‘open’, kept the moon’s gleam softly shimmering, “De ses pâleurs,/ Tombe comme une averse/ De larges pleur” (its pallid light, falls like a shower of great tears).  The dark mysteries of ‘Meditation’ resolved into the purity of the tread of gentle night (“la douce Nuit qui marche”).

Once again travelling back a few years, after the interval Uchida and Kožená concluded their Debussy sequence with the Ariettes oubliées of 1885-87 (rev. 1903).  Verlaine’s poetry is perhaps less indulgent in its imagery and Debussy’s settings have a beguiling fluidity which was wonderfully conveyed here, piano and voice seeming to ‘float’, creating a magical cushion of tenderness.  The tears of ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ rippled through the piano, even as Uchida retained her quiet poise, and, dipping low, Kožená’s slightly dry voice conveyed anguish of the close, touched by the piano’s troubling whispers: “Sans amours et sans haine,/ Mon Coeur a tant de peine.” (Without love and without hate my heart feels such pain.) ‘Chevaux de bois’ (Merry-go-round) provided a brief interjection of breeziness, delivered with utmost precision but admitting expansiveness when required.  Kožená’s mezzo bloomed wonderfully in ‘Green’, before settling us peacefully at the close.  ‘Spleen’ thrilled with its nihilistic decadence and surprised with its unexpected, fleeting twists and turns.

By this point in the recital, I thought that this seductive stream of musique de rêve might pull me down into its dangerous undercurrents.  If the second book of Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi (nine songs which he wrote for his then wife, violinist and composer Claire Delbos), with its sometimes difficult-to-digest fusion of personal-physical and divine-metaphysical love, didn’t quite save one from ‘drowning’, it did offer a change of tone, and a pathway to a reverential timelessness.  

Messaien’s songs also gave Kožená the opportunity to release the fullness of her mezzo.  At times, one felt that the intimacy of the miniatures which form Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Ariettes Oubliées was more suited to Uchida’s aesthetic of minute observations and lucid articulation of every tiny shift of timbre and colour, but now the Czech singer’s passion could be worn on her sleeve.  Messaien’s self-dramatising rhetoric encouraged a more penetrating vocal tone in ‘L’épouse’ (The bride), though Uchida captured the fusion of personal and divine at the close, her postlude drifting into the ether.  ‘Ta voix’ (Your voice) was effusively lyrical, ‘Les deux guerriers’ (The two warriors) heated, fierce and furious.  Rhythmic flexibility and spaciousness characterised ‘Le collier’ (The necklace), while ‘Prière exaucée’ (A prayer granted) made for a theatrical conclusion of declamatory richness and majesty.

Kožená left French territory and returned to her homeland for her encore: the simplicity of folk-imbued Janáček was a much-needed palette cleanser after all the Gallic gorgeousness.

Claire Seymour

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Debussy: Chansons de Bilitis, 5 poèmes de Baudelaire, Ariettes oubliées; Messiaen: Poèmes pour Mi (‘L’épouse’, ‘Ta voix’, ‘Les deux guerriers’, ‘Le collier’, ‘Prière exaucée’).

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9th October 2023.

ABOVE: Pianist Mitsuko Uchida and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená at Wigmore Hall © The Wigmore Hall Trust