Magdalena Kozena, Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture

After releasing a Cd of Italian love songs from the early seventeenth century, Magdalena Kozena and the Private Musicke ensemble are touring a programme based on it. ‘Lettera amorosa’ is the name of a song by Monteverdi, but in plural form it makes the perfect title for this collection of songs by his less familiar (to us) contemporaries. Given that the songs of Sigismondo D’India, Giulio Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, and Tarquinio Merula are superb, it makes good sense for Kozena to bring them back into focus.

She and Private Musicke come at this music from an interesting angle. Regarding these songs as the popular music ordinary people might have listened to, and sung, in church and street - and making a virtue of the near-absence of notational directions - they have made their own arrangements with their own instrumentation: lutes, guitars, a harp, a violone, and simple percussion including the dusty-sounding daf drum. For Kozena, the project has apparently been like a holiday: since the songs aren’t technically difficult, she has been able to cut straight to the emotional core.

And she certainly does, from the moment she bursts on stage to deliver, fortissimo, a paean by Filippo Vitali to love’s sweet pain. Her voice seems too huge for the hall, and her manner too exaggerated: she segues with gale force into D’India’s ‘Cruel Amaryllis’, and then – without missing a beat, or dropping a decibel – into a lover’s lament by Caccini. It’s all magnificent, and all wrong. These songs need space to breathe, and their sentiments need far subtler expression. Only when we come to Merula’s masterpiece – a cradle song by the Virgin Mary, which is also a searing lament – does Kozena get inside the text.

She was always too much an actor to settle for mere vocal beauty, and here she deploys a dazzling range of effects, brightening and darkening her tone as the emotional weather changes in D’India’s ‘Zephyr’, and responding with morbid emphasis to the dissonances in his setting of a poem to a dead mistress. In Strozzi’s ‘Heraclitus in love’ the pleasurable pain of unrequited love reaches its apogee, and here Kozena is superb. But in general, a less crudely aggressive singer would have packed a bigger emotional punch.

There will be a second performance tomorrow night