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Magdalena Kozena at Shriver Hall

By Charles T. Downey,

The things that make a good song recital happen can be as elusive as alchemy. Part of it is the choice of songs, part is the singer’s ability to narrate in music as if simply reciting poetry, and part is the pianist’s ability to set the scene. All three of these elements came together in the recital by Magdalena Kozena on Sunday at Shriver Hall, the Czech mezzo-soprano’s first in the area since 2009.

By most vocal standards, Kozena’s voice is not extraordinary; it has a pretty but relatively small tone that tends to sound forced at extremes of dynamic and range. Her wide-eyed storytelling was key to bringing off this unusual program of rarely heard song sets, in which she conveyed the rambling thoughts of children (Mussorgsky’s “The Nursery”), the obsessions of birds and insects (Ravel’s “Histoires Naturelles”), and the shrieks and quirks of Slovakian folk song (Bartok’s “Village Scenes”). Kozena could float these vocal lines — most straightforwardly in Rachmaninoff’s six Op. 38 songs — with ease and confidence, with virtuoso pianist Yefim Bronfman providing the color at the keyboard.

The unexpected highlight of the recital was the world premiere of “Three Melodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound” by Marc-Andre Dalbavie. Although known primarily for his work in electronic and computer-assisted music, Dalbavie’s fascination with a range of sounds makes this mini-cycle captivating listening, beginning with an enigmatic descending arpeggio in the piano and ending on an ascending form of the same motif. Heavily applied sustaining pedal created washes of dissonant sound, with avian tremolos and whirs in the piano in the middle song — a watercolor backdrop for the disjointed, fragmented lines of the vocal part. Its world of interior sadness was echoed in the concert’s encore, “Wehmut,” a poem by Eichendorff set by Schumann in his Op. 39 “Liederkreis.”

Downey is a freelance writer.

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