With the spectre of Valentine’s Day looming ever closer, a programme of 17th century Italian love songs may have seemed just the thing to fire Cupid’s bow, although your average audience member at Wigmore Hall may be considered a little beyond such nonsense, in terms of age at least. In the event, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena and the instrumental ensemble Private Musicke struck gold (and hearts) in a programme of songs exploring all the pleasures and pains of love under the title ‘Lettere amorose’, the same heading as was used on their recent disc for Deutsche Grammophon. I did wonder if this was going to be a promotional puff (if a tardy one) for the album, with an almost identical sequence of songs occasionally shuffled. Indeed, that the programme announced was 75 minutes long and was to be performed without an interval raised my suspicions, but the artistry involved suggested this repertoire is a real labour of love. In truth, there was a distinct absence of the aforementioned disc for sale in the foyer.
The format of the recital was remarkably informal. As soon as the door from the green room opened, before any applause could greet the performers, Pierre Pitzl strolled onto the stage already strumming his baroque guitar, accompanied by Richard Myron, who was soon adding pizzicato bass notes on his violone. Ms Kozena wandered out, in a simple red dress, immediately launching into Filippo Vitali’s ‘O bel lumi’, during which the other members of Pitzl’s band, Private Musicke, took their places on the stage. Several numbers were segued, including the occasional instrumental piece, during which Ms Kozena took a seat at the back of the platform, taking the chance to sip some water, but always fully engaged in musical performances. Indeed, it was difficult to take one’s eyes off her, as she was clearly revelling in their music-making, beaming beatifically, tapping along on her thigh, enraptured, enjoying it every bit as much as the audience.
The range of colours in Kozena’s voice is striking and she uses the full palette for musical and dramatic effect, from a veiled, almost covered tone in Sigismondo d’India’s ‘Cruda Amarilli’ to full-throated anguish in Barbara Strozzi’s ‘L’Eraclito amoroso’, full of regret for her unfaithful lover; an epic lament, dramatically presented to an accompaniment of throbbing strings. Tarquino Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’, a lullaby of the Virgin Mary, was spellbinding in the simplicity of Ms Kozena’s delivery and the repeated, strummed chords from the ensemble. I was initially surprised at the ease with which Kozena’s mezzo filled the hall and the volume with which she could hit the back rows, where us critics were caballed. But she can scale her voice down to a seductive half-whisper as well and still hold the audience in the palm of her hand. The whole gamut of emotions was conveyed, from the regret of d’India’s ‘Torna il sereno Zefiro’ to the inflamed passion of Girolamo Kapsberger’s ‘Aurilla mia’.
While all the songs were from 17th century Italy, the instrumental pieces all hailed from Spain, allowing the excellent musicians to pluck and strum their way through some attractive numbers, much of them jauntily upbeat. None tickled the ear more than Gaspar Sanz’s ‘Canarios’, familiar for its appearance in the concluding movement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre and allowing Pitzl to display his complete mastery of the guitar. If the eye was drawn away from Ms Kozena, momentarily, it was to marvel at the skills of percussionist David Mayoral, who conjured up some fantastic effects from seemingly simple instruments – how many things can you do with a tambourine? – often played simultaneously. The predominant sound was, naturally enough, one of plucked strings – two guitars, theorbo, harp and colascione (a long-necked lute) – but the bowed pairing of violone and lira da gamba added the occasional accompaniment which sounded uncannily like a harmonium.
The relaxed atmosphere on stage lent an air of improvisation to proceedings. Kozena has not always been the most comfortable or natural performer on the operatic stage, but she was transformed here, seeming completely at her ease, totally inhabiting these songs. There may be historical reasons for this; Kozena grew up singing them in Brno, from participating in a children’s choir from the age of six to performing secular songs by Monteverdi and Co at the conservatory. Technically, they are not the most challenging things she’s ever sung and perhaps this, allied to the joy in returning to familiar repertoire, allows her to express herself more freely.
The absolute highlight of the programme was also the most well-known; Monteverdi’s ‘Si dolce è ’l tormento’, which immediately followed an instrumental dance. Kozena’s solo opening phrase took me slightly off-guard; the sheer beauty of its line and vocal delivery was stunning and, I confess, a tear welled in the eye of your stony-hearted correspondent. She then used a mezza voce breathy tone in the second verse which completely seduced the ear. It was time for this Beckmesser to lay aside his slate – unmarked – and surrender at such artistry.
The same programme will be given at the same venue on Friday 4th, would that I could be there again. For those unable to attend either, I can report that microphones were present; as I assume that it’s unlikely that the Wigmore Hall Live label could filch an almost identical programme to DG’s, I suspect a BBC Radio 3 recording the most obvious, and happy, outcome.
The programme was an ideal length, with the three generous encores (which some critics would have missed on their immediate departure at the end of the published programme). I’m not entirely comfortable with the whole business of star ratings for performances, but I shall award this the full five on the basis that I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about the evening. Indeed, if a sixth star was available, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to Ms Kozena for this remarkable recital.