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Magdalena Kožená: Lettere Amorose

img  Tobias Fischer

Apparently, one can still stun people by delivering classical music with chutzpa and passion. When Madgalena Kožená and Austrian plucked-instrument-ensemble Private Musicke  previewed parts of their album at Queen's Hall earlier this year, some of the critics in the audience were struck by the singer's „exotic dress“ and „naked feet“ as well as the ensemble's „Rock-style sign-offs that wouldn't have been out of place even at Glastonbury“. Clearly, no one who's actually attended the infamous English Metal fest would seriously consider that comparison. But on a scene, where debating about ideal techniques for unwrapping cough sweets is not regarded as absurd, the sheer intensity and immediacy of both music and performance clearly hit home. For her 27th full-length in just over a decade of recording, Kožená  wanted to go back to the purity and directness of her youthful beginnings as a singer, to pieces that were outwardly simple, but emotionally profound and which were always written as much with the aim to inspire and entertain as to intellectually engage. Or, as she put it herself: „A simple song can be deep, too.“

This duality is pervasive on Lettere Amorose. The album's title is actually slightly misleading with regards to the pieces featured here, which are not, strictly speaking, letters and which deal many different forms of love: The love for god, the love of a mother for her child, the love for a friend and of a man for a fair maiden. And then, they deal with all of its different nuances, with the gravity of pain, dark desires and forbidden longings as well as with the point where affection and dedication turn into disdain and even hate. It is certainly not just a feeling of fondness that Kožená is singing about here either, but more often than not a tingling sensation of physical attraction, of erotic tension and sensual confusion – perfectly portrayed on Giulio Caccini's „Odi Euterpe“, which depicts a nocturnal scene of voyeurism with striking explicitness: „My Lydia covered her breasts with the chaste veil of night, but the moon in the heavens revealed it to me as it flashed with golden flames to let me see so lovely a treasure.“

The music accompanying these words is surprisingly playful and airy, as if the love-struck protagonist of the scene had quickly hastened away and were now reclining against a nearby tree to catch his breath, cool his passions and, no longer in danger of being discovered, pleasurably reflect on what he has just witnessed. It is a typical moment for the entire disc, which doesn't so much see Private Musicke counterpoint or comment on the lyrics, but provide for accompanying imagery and context instead. It is precisely not the big Glastonbury-style-gestures that mark their contributions here, but rather the ability of subtly adding a second layer of movement, contemplation and, at times, mere timbral richness to the songs, filling in the space around the words in all the colours of the rainbow. Kožená, in turn, allows the musicians to play at par with her,  treating them as band members rather than accompanists – even at the most dramatic moments, the power of the composition rather than the ego of the vocalist takes center stage on Lettere Amorose.

The material, which might easily have collapsed under the weight of exagerated virtuoso athletics, naturally benefits from the egalitarian approach, but Kožená's reticence is not just a question of aesthetics. Even though she rightly claims that these tracks „speak to everyone“, her interpretations are importantly formed by personal experience. The most obvious example for her  involvement with and immersion into the lyrics is Tarquinio Merula's „Hor ch'e tempo di dormire“, a personal favourite of the Soprano and, despite being placed towards the beginning of the collection, a centerpiece and conceptual anchor for the entire collection. While the music one-ups Punk's philosophy of  „three chords and a guitar“ by mantrically repeating the same two triads for its entire eight and a half minute duration, Kožená, who has passionately spoken about the experience of mothership as deepening and enriching one's entire life, hauntingly depicts the fear of the virgin Mary for the pains her newborn son will have to endure. Again and again, the nursery rhyme „My beloved, my love“ returns, each time with more insistence, despair and imploring – if this is a lullaby, it sure isn't promising any sweet dreams.

So even though the nature of the material, which is largely written from a 17th century male perspective, inherently requires a degree of role play, Kožená always manages to take it back to its timeless essentials: The torture exerted by the sight of beauty, the solitude caused by unrequited adoration, the absolute assurance that only eternal love can give. „Udite Amanti“, another extensive work, which, despite representing a setting to music of „Heraclitus in Love“, for example, is interpreted from the perspective of a cheated woman answering the wrongdoings of her idol with a retreat into hopelessness and infinite sorrow. Here, accompanied by a downward-bound chord progression, another contemporary comparison seems to suggest itself: That with the Blues. Both, after all, are marked by the duality of pleasure and pain, by the prerogative of experience and by the co-existence of purity and profundity, of simplicity and utmost seriousness. Both, too, can only come to life once the immediate experience has subsided, feeding from the residue of emotional agitation and speaking in metaphors rather than spelling things out in full.

Of course, there are plenty of more upbeat moments to be found on Lettere Amorose, too. If you find yourself whistling along to the tunes even at some of the most demanding moments, that is part of the plan: Even those who never considered entertainment and classical music as mutually exclusive in the first place will discover plenty of surprises here.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Magdalena Kožená
Homepage: Deutsche Grammophon Recordings

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