In their recital together Wednesday night at the Wiener Staatsoper, mezzo Magdalena Kožená and star pianist Mitsuko Uchida reminded their audiences that they are wonderfully capable musicians capable of great color, finesse and technical prowess. Presenting a heavy-hitting program full of diverse color encompassing serious art song repertoire of Schumann, Debussy, Mahler and Messiaen, this pair of artists both had spectacular moments.

© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Kožená, in a gorgeous, mutli-colored gown took the stage with her partner for the evening, pianist Mitsuko Uchida who was clad in a black pantsuit, gold sheath and red glasses, then opened with a musical set as stark and somber in character as their trappings were not: Schumanns Maria Stuart Lieder. These particular Schumann songs are relatively rarely heard because of their inaccessibility. Based on texts which at least partially can be attributed to the queen herself, they seem to represent the bonds of her office, and lack all of the tuneful romanticism with which so many of Schumann’s songs are characterized. The grouping tends towards a certain sameness of sound, not in the least because each of the five songs are either in E minor or A minor. With the exception of “Abschied von Frankreich”, which features a rolling, Schumannesque piano line, beautifully traced by Uchida, the piano is sparsely used, though still instrumental in giving each work its particular character. “Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes” and “Gebet” are both chordal and hymn-like while dramatic, dotted chords run through “An die Königin Elisabeth”. Kožená’s burnished mezzo sound gave the set a melancholy as well as slightly constricted feeling which suited these rigid texts full of pain, faith and desperation. Only on the final “Frieden” in the melancholy “Abschied von der Welt” did Kožená allow her voice to freely spin, which was a beautiful contract to the sameness of sound inherent in this set both in terms of how they were composed and executed. It was a brave choice to begin the concert with, and not one I would necessarily suggest, but impressive nonetheless, as was the fact that Kožená had taken the time to memorize every single number in the program, something which cannot be said for the majority of these concerts over the last few seasons.

Kožená’s voice is beautifully suited to French repertoire, and both the Debussy sets and particularly the Messiaen which ended the concert gave much more opportunity for her, as well as Uchida, to show off their beautiful tone and variety of sound. The mystical Chansons de Bilitis with their magical pentatonic sounds and texts about sensual hair, frolicking nymphs and pan-flutes, and the complete Ariettes oublieés are studies in sound, light and darkness, color and imitation. Uchida’s panflutes to open Bilitis were gorgeous, and I immediately relaxed into the warmth of Kožená’s honey sound when singing piano in the lower register. While I felt the frogs could have croaked a bit more froggily in their pond and the joke of the lost belt and the disbelieving mother which ended “La flute de Pan” got lost in musical translation, there was much that was commendable. The Ariettes oublieés on the other hand felt slightly marched through in general and could have used a bit more sensuality. In truth, I wondered if Kožená was not a bit vocally tired. There was a general concreteness to the delivery and uniformity of sound that did not suit the settings, though Uchida’s rendition of the rain in “Il pleut doucement sur la ville” was absolutely spectacular and both artists had beautiful moments in “Spleen”, the high point of the set. The best set was definitely saved for last, however, with a set of five songs from book two of Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, where both artists flawlessly negotiated the rhythmically challenging, technically demanding landscape with apparent ease. The Messiaen are often sung by dramatic soprano voices and while not every high note had the ease that one would prefer, the power of Kožená’s instrument was commendable and suited these large, transcendental works, for which “song” seems too diminutive a term.

The only thing that was consistently lacking throughout the evening was the feeling that the two soloists were actually a true duo. Both had individually brilliant moments, but artistic unity was often lacking. Some of Uchida’s tempo decisions, especially in the Debussy and Mahler, did not allow for enough space for the voice to embrace climactic moments, or breathe without being rushed. On the other hand, her individual sense of line, clarity of articulation and phrasing was flawless and it was a rare treat to hear piano parts like Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder or Chevaux de bois with such virtuosic sparkle. Kožená, for her part, sounded a bit vocally tired in general and had the tendency to push a bit, especially in the German repertoire, but did not take a single wrong step in this hefty program and delivered each number with great certainty and clarity of diction. Songs from the Rückert Lieder set such as “Ich atmet’ einen Linden Duft” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” were particularly successful and seemed completely suspended in time.

The sizable audience was unusually attentive and appreciative of the pair, and pulled them to the stage for numerous bows and three encores, including a Czech folk song, Schumann’s Der Nussbaum and finally Wolf’s Nimmersatte Liebe. All in all, it was a wonderful program, impressively executed by two top-notch soloists.

***11