In last night’s Czech Philharmonic concert at the Rudolfinum, the single defining piece of music was a miniature. Bohuslav Martinů’s Stáří (Old age), the second of his Nipponari, song settings of Japanese poems, lasts just five minutes, but contains a lifetime. A woman remembers a time her black hair was turned white by falling blossoms; today, her hair has no need of such blossoms. It’s deeply meditative and very, very Japanese; preceded by dreamy harp, viola and cor anglais solos, Magdalena Kožená had us entranced with a voice of creamily smooth timbre from top to bottom of her range, light vibrato and eloquent enunciation of each word. That one song alone would have been worth the ticket price.

Simon Rattle and Magdalena Kožená
© Petr Kadlec

The other six Nipponari are even shorter, two to three minutes each. They share the themes of nature and the passing of time so characteristic of Japanese poetry. Kožená somehow contrived to be both dramatic and meditative at the same time, modulating her voice to show emotion that could start repressed but explode to the surface. Sir Simon Rattle and the Czech Phil produced many lovely individual instrumental moments in Martinů’s sparse orchestration, which is shot through with orientalist scales and motifs without an excess of these leading to pastiche (in 1912, the composer was just 22 years old when he wrote the cycle; he was experimenting with orchestration and was undoubtedly aware of Madama Butterfly, which had appeared eight years earlier).

Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kožená and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

The Nipponari were preceded by Songs on one page, settings of Czech folk poetry written in exile in 1943. In spite of Martinů being far more mature, these are less intense works with less daring orchestration (by Jiří Teml, not Martinů himself). However, they are more varied in theme and pace. Kožená sang them to us with the intimacy of a folk singer by her fireside, her voice particularly impressive in the low register and her manner changing from honeyed sweetness in Rosička (Dew) to cheerful folkiness in Otevření Slovečkem (a mother locks up her pretty daughter, but in vain) to fervent devotion in Sen Panny Marie (The Virgin Mary’s Dream). These are lovely settings and it was delightful to hear Kožená singing them on home turf.

The programme opened and closed with Schumann. First, the overture to the composer’s only opera, Genoveva, based on a Lohengrin-like medieval story of a woman falsely accused of adultery (the opera bombed, but the overture has remained popular to this day). The Czech Philharmonic brought their dark, burnished string tone to the party, as well as rich horn timbre. Rattle showed a somewhat laissez-faire conducting style, using gesture to shape dynamics and point at desired accents, but doing relatively little to mark time. The result was enthusiasm and nicely balanced phrasing, but occasional mistimed entries and an overall sound that erred on the side of muddy.

Simon Rattle and the Czech Philharmonic
© Petr Kadlec

After the interval, Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C major, written when the composer was fighting both physical and mental ill health. The work sounds defiant in the face of these, most notably in its opening brass-laden chorale, which the Czech Phil played sumptuously. But this was a mixed performance which failed to convince me of Schumann’s symphonic genius. The transition from the chorale to the main body of the first movement lacked bite. In the second movement Scherzo, the scurrying strings were brilliantly accurate and together, but as the movement progressed and the theme returned, it seemed like a simple repeat rather than a progression. The highlight of the performance was the third movement Adagio, with wonderful swell, telling horn throwbacks to the first movement chorale and a blissful reprise at the end.

[Update 3-Mar-2023: added clarification that the orchestration of Songs on one Page is by Jiří Teml, not Martinů himself]