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Magdalena Kožená sings Vivaldi

In 1737 Vivaldi described himself in a letter as a “freelance entrepreneur”; yes, the composer of The Four Seasons, famous music even then, thought of himself first and foremost not as the violin virtuoso and pioneer of the solo concerto we know him as today, but as a man of the stage. And indeed, from the time of his first opera, Ottone in villa, produced in Vicenza in 1713, through to the final visit to Vienna in 1740–41 on which he died, he was one of north-ern Italy’s busiest opera composers, mounting performances of his own works at the Sant’Angelo opera house in his native Venice, and travelling for productions in cities such as Rome, Florence, Milan, Mantua and Verona, as well as further afield to Vienna and Prague. He claimed (probably with some exaggeration) to have composed 94 operas, yet they failed to out-live him (fewer than 30 survive intact today), and it has only been in the last decade that his dramatic music has begun to make itself known to the modern listener, thanks to increased num-bers of recordings and occasional staged productions.

For Magdalena Kožená, too, there was a discovery to be made when it was suggested that she and the Venice Baroque Orchestra follow up their first recording together (of Handel) with a selection of arias from Vivaldi’s operas. “Andrea Marcon and the Venice Baroque have this mu-sic in their blood”, she says, “and did some amazing things with it that I wasn’t expecting. There is one aria, for example, ‘Forse, o caro, in questi accenti’, from Farnace, which, when they started playing it, made me immediately feel like I was in a gondola on a night-ride in Ven-ice. It had that kind of magic about it.”

Magdalena Kožená admits to being drawn to this gentler side of Vivaldi’s art, though for many people the first impression of his vocal music is of a dazzling virtuoso difficulty imported from his instrumental style and showing a fearsome disregard for the human weaknesses of singers. “Those pyrotechnics are always a nice challenge for me”, says Kožená, “but I didn’t put so many of those arias in, even though ones like ‘Armatae face’ (Juditha triumphans) or ‘Nel profondo’ (Orlando furioso) are masterpieces. They’re fun to do, because it’s a bit like the Olympics or something – you’re wondering if you’re going to make it or not.”

With Vivaldi’s slow arias the challenge is rather one of simplicity, how to make something vital out of the often spare textures. “It’s about the atmosphere of the moment”, Magdalena Kožená explains. “They’re rather impressionistic. You need to find one special mood and not worry about the meaning of each individual word; you have to get used to the idea of staying with that one mood for a while. It’s very zen in that way, very calming. I like to listen to Vivaldi on a grey day because it’s soothing and puts you more at one with nature.”

It is hard not to make the obvious comparison here with Handel: Magdalena Kožená insists that while Vivaldi does not offer the same kind of emotional punch, that is not the point. “When I did the Handel recording there was huge drama. Handel really needs big extremes. But that wouldn’t suit Vivaldi’s music at all. It would be destroyed if you did too much to it. It’s like Murano glass; if you do just one thing wrong it suddenly loses its magical perfection. Of course, you can’t say that it’s not emotional, but it’s like in yoga when you’re told to concentrate on one thing and be happy with it. Normally in music, as in other things, I like to look for huge contrasts, but I don’t think that’s right for Vivaldi. Even though these slow pieces are also opera arias with stories be-hind them, you have to find a single serene emotion in them and hold on to it. That’s much more

Magdalena Kožená says that she spent many hours choosing the arias for this programme, pick-ing numbers from both the soprano and alto ranges which she felt showcased the variety of Vivaldi’s approaches, a job made easier by their relative lack of familiarity. “I really felt free to choose the best music, because there were no old favourites that had to be included – there are no Vivaldi ‘hits’!” Even so, she has a clear favourite among them in “Gelido in ogni vena” from Farnace. “It’s a stunning masterpiece, absolutely out of this world. And it’s one aria where it so happens that there is a lot of theatre. It’s the moment when a father discovers that he has unknowingly given the command for his son to be killed, and now he’s completely frozen with horror.” Vivaldi’s response seems to have been a highly personal one too: with the text describing the singer’s blood running cold, he borrows music from the chilling opening movement of the “Winter” from The Four Seasons.

Vivaldi opera recital discs are still a rare commodity, so any one of them is likely to be some-thing of a journey into unknown territory. For Magdalena Kožená, however, the pleasure of dis-covery was enhanced by working with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, especially as, with no op-portunity to perform these arias in concert before the recording, there was no time for the interpretations to become stale. “I was a bit scared about that, but I knew we would have a fan-tastic time making music together, and anyway, as Andrea said, it would probably be better that way as we would find a fantastic connection by doing things ‘in the moment’, keeping things fresh and spontaneous. He was right!”

Lindsay Kemp