Magdalena Kožená /Venice Baroque Orchestra/Andrea Marcon - Barbican, 15 November 2007
Opening her London Handel recital with a couple of arias in English was a brave move by Magdalena Kožená. Unfortunately it demonstrated that for all her keen grasp of the meaning underlying the text, she has less of a grip on the slippery basics of English diction than might be expected. With darkness deep from Theodora came off worse than O had I Jubal's lyre from Joshua, where the lavish (and precisely-executed) coloratura largely supplanted the details of the text anyway.
The remainder of her programme was all-Italian, starting with the twelve minute Scherza Infida from Ariodante. Here, there was no distraction from the ecstatic radiance of her seamless tone. She was secure and even from her porcelain soprano top to her fruity (and disturbingly baritonal) bottom.
With a voice and technique like Kožená's it must be tempting to sit back and luxuriate in 'beautiful' singing, but instead her interpretations are fearless dramatic statements, sometimes, debatably, to excess. Her recital presentation is I suppose what she'd deliver in a full opera. But on a bare stage, without the surrounding characters and the preceding drama, it's brave and challenging, and there's a temptation to view it simply as histrionic. It requires a degree of imagination (or a stupendous recollection of the opera) from the listener if it's to be taken at face value, something we're not often asked for in this context.
It was easier to appreciate the more reflective Cara speme from Giulio Cesare and the exuberant Dopo notte from Ariodante with its flowing sweeps of coloratura. Languid legato is perhaps her strongest suit, and the encore, an astonishingly beautiful Lascia Ch'io Pianga from Rinaldo, displayed Kozena at her melancholic best.
The 16-strong Venice Baroque Orchestra complemented Kožená's every mood sensitively (and it was a surprise to see the violins and violas standing throughout). In between the Handel arias they gave spritely readings of Vivaldi concertos. This combination sounds logical enough on paper - battle of the baroque maestri - but in reality, it was curiously unsatisfactory, like alternating bites of dinner with mouthfuls of dessert.
One of their aims, according to the programme, was to demonstrate the variety of Vivaldi's concertos -- something that would surely have been easier to appreciate had they been placed side by side. Alternating with the Handel, they inevitably paled by comparison. But they were elevated above mere filler status by the vitality of the performance, especially in the closing Concerto for two cellos.