Magdalena Kožená has for a long time been an artist of singular originality. Initially specializing in Baroque music, she has gradually expanded her repertoire, always selecting songs or opera roles she believed were a good fit for her voice and sensibility, regardless of what others thought. Without being a great actress, in the conventional sense, Kožená can charm an audience with the intelligence with which she approaches each phrase and her phenomenal intensity.

Sir Simon Rattle and Magdalena Kožená
© Kevin Yatarola, courtesy of Lincoln Center

The Tuesday night recital at Alice Tully Hall included only one traditional work for voice accompanied by piano: Richard Strauss’ Drei Lieder der Ophelia, full of ambiguous passages, conveying the character’s fragility, brought forward by Kožená with an eeriness evoking Debussy’s Mélisande, her trademark role. In the last song, Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloß (They carried him naked at the bier), her repeated “Und kommt er nimmermehr?” – complemented by gloomy piano harmonies suggesting meandering waters and Ophelia’s own death – was heart-wrenching.

The rest of the recital included songs from the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th with the mezzo joined by a shifting group of outstanding musicians, comprised of a string quartet (violinists Giovanni Guzzo and Rahel Maria Rilling, violist Amihai Grosz and cellist Dávid Adorján), flutist Kaspar Zehnder and clarinetist Andrew Marriner, besides Sir Simon Rattle providing an always attentive and subtle accompaniment at the piano. If the choice of songs, many little known, interpreted in French, German, English and Czech, was enticing, the criteria for selecting these and not others were murky. In addition, their order seemed to be a tad at whim. German Lieder inspired by Ophelia were separated by unrelated music by Ravel (and the interval). The Three Songs from William Shakespeare, Stravinsky’s not-very-convincing experiment in serialism, whose aridity Kožená tried her best to compensate, was sandwiched between works by Chausson and Richard Strauss.

The program started with the too-rarely played Chanson perpétuelle by Ernest Chausson, heard in the version with piano and string quartet accompaniment. One can still sense César Franck’s influence in this late work, but nevertheless, it’s an opus of great expressive power. Kožená took great pain to underline the interplay between the sinuous music and the quasi-symbolistic Charles Cros stanzas, drawing on her remarkable ability to isolate and convey the essential. If she occasionally imbued Chausson’s lines – describing an abandoned woman states of mind – with too much pathos, she seemed a little too detached in the other French music of the evening, Ravel’s exotic and delightfully uncharacteristic Chansons madécasses, with their varied sound combinations between voice, flute, cello and piano.

Kaspar Zehnder, Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kožená and Dávid Adorján
© Kevin Yatarola, courtesy of Lincoln Center

If Brahms’ rather obscure Ophelia-Lieder have few distinctive features, the Two Songs with Viola, Op.91 are much more representative of the composer’s mature style. Written two decades apart for the great contralto Amalie Schneeweiss, both are marked by an exquisite balance between voice, viola (the wonderfully eloquent Grosz) and piano. The way Kožena modulated her instrument around the repeated “Leise gesänfting…” was truly impressive.

As expected, the high point of the recital was the series of songs in Kožená’s native Czech. Janaček’s Ríkadla (Nursery Rhymes), music full of wit and nerve, presented in the original version for voice, clarinet and piano (with occasional brief interjections of the evening’s other instrumentalists functioning as a humor-filled choir) brought to mind reminiscences of the subtle, folk-tinged arias and the hyper-real world of The Cunning Little Vixen. With a childish glimmer in her eyes and little dance movements, Kožená seemed to just enjoy the freedom to perform in her own idiom, full of distinctive accents and intonation patterns, so difficult to render by any non-native singer. As much as Janaček’s scores are anchored in Moravian folk music, with its polymetric features, Dvořák's songs are based on a Bohemian tradition much more closely aligned to German folk music. The presented selection of works, adapted by Duncan Ward from several cycles – Gypsy Songs, Cypresses, In Folk Tone – employed the entire instrumental ensemble. Mordant in Janaček, the mezzo’s voice was here full of wistful melancholy.

The performance ended with two encores: a seventh Dvořák song – Dobrú noc (Good Night) – arranged by Duncan Ward and a version of Strauss’ masterpiece Morgen, featuring a heartfelt dialogue between Kožená and violinist Guzzo.