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01.05.2004    A Question to... Magdalena Kožená

Gramophone: How important are different languages in music interpretation?

Magdalena Kožená: In songs, language has the same value as the music. In the selection on my new recital disc I was interested to find out, and to show, how the language can shape the music, and how the language can change the mood.

Neither the words, nor the sounds the words make, have a greater importance. It's a whole package, I don't think that you can really separate them. Of course, in some music, like, for example, Dvorak's songs, the vocal line is generally more important, it's the dominant thing. But in the songs of Shostakovich, or Britten, the words are really an equal partner to the music.

Czech is of course the easiest language for me! But I've come to enjoy French very much: the special nasal sound, that you don't have in other languages, it gives it a different colour. Of course in the beginning French was really difficult, but once you sing it a lot you can forget about getting every vowel right, and the moment when you can start to play with the language is the interesting moment. German is fine, too. Some people find it very hard - there are a lot of consonants, and sometimes you have a feeling that these consonants are cutting the line - but if you learn to use them, you can do something very special with the language.

I didn't start with the idea of having five languages on the disc. Firstly, I was looking for chamber music - for pieces not only for voice and piano, but for different instruments. Respighi was the first piece chosen. Then I had to decide to either do one composer, or maybe two which are combined in a sense, or to go for a very different thing. And I said 'Why not do something completely wide?'.

I hope it is a good portrait of Europe at the time. The first half of the 20th century (though the Shostakovich cycle was written a little later) was a very difficult period. We had two wars, and I find people tried to compensate for these horrible things with a kind of hope and light. I think all these cycles have that in common. The Russian cycle is maybe not about these wars, but about Communism, which in a way was a similar catastrophe for Russian people. These pieces are different ways of dealing with traumatic situations of different nations.

Are they musically conservative pieces? No, I don't think so. For example, it was forbidden to play the Shostakovich cycle for a couple of years because it was really very, very much against the regime. And I think Ravel's music was a revolution at that time. And while Respighi is maybe not so modern for his age, I think it's very revolutionary for Italian music, because it really doesn't sound very Italian, and what I love on this cycle is that the voice is part of a string quartet. It is like Italian impressionism.
Gramophone magazine