Any doubts about the maestro’s pianistic skills were laid to rest in the opening bars of Chausson’s melancholy ‘Chanson perpétuelle’: one was immediately aware of a conductor’s shaping intelligence behind his sculpted phrases. Here was a fluent, self-effacing pianism, deftly put at the service of each composer.
For this was really Kozená’s night, a gourmet menu of hidden jewels of the song repertoire, whose eccentric ensembles can rarely be gathered. Stravinsky’s astringent Three Songs from William Shakespeare, for example, demand voice, flute (Kaspar Zehnder), clarinet and viola (Amihai Grosz), a combination zinging heat and cold. After a tautly-sprung ‘Music to hear’ Kozená mined the dark mystery of ‘Full fathom five’ before whirling into the chattering birdsong of ‘When daisies pied’.
There were two settings of Ophelia’s lyrics: Brahms tells her story with sorrowful, folk-like simplicity, while Strauss, the dramatist, injects schizophrenic shocks: Kozená caught all the frothy innocence of a waltz that flashes into the stark lament.
Ravel’s sultry ‘Chansons madécasses’ made an emotional centrepoint: cellist Dávid Adjorán wove a spell-binding opening, before ‘Aoua!’ Ravel’s timeless cry against oppression, to which Rattle brought driving menace, but Kozena less focus.
Brahms hoped his songs with viola for Joachim and his wife would dissuade them from divorcing: listening to the intense, veiled viola twining with Kozená’s darkly flaming line, it’s hard to believe he failed. You could almost hear Rattle purring at the piano. Janacék’s Ríkadla (Nursery Rhymes) came like a hail of aphoristic bullets, with Marriner playing clarinet-acrobat. A finale of Dvorák songs, beautifully arranged by Rattle protegé Duncan Ward, found Kozená at ease, singing from the soul. Let’s hope they’re invited back…