The Czech mezzo-soprano talks about her experience of recording Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the French conductor Pierre Boulez
You recorded these orchestral songs live in Cleveland in February this year. Did you discuss with Pierre Boulez how you would interpret Des Knaben Wunderhorn?
We didn’t discuss very much. You know there are some conductors, Bernard Haitink for instance: you meet them and they make music without saying much about it – yet it’s happening. I think that’s the genius of these people.
So how did you find performing them with Boulez?
I was honoured and happy I could do those songs [with him]. I knew how bright and human Boulez is, but I was still amazed with the way he dealt with the orchestra, the way of being so nice to everyone. And because he comes to Cleveland regularly, the Orchestra there loves him. They wanted to celebrate his birthday in advance, and made a surprise on-stage presentation. And he just gave, from scratch, an unbelievably bright and funny speech in English. For me it was a huge experience to be part of it.
What about the actual performance?
Boulez is someone who likes things more, let’s say, a tempo [in strict time]. He doesn’t like very much ritardando [slowing down] or to make the music too Romantic; he’s much more in the 20th-century way of thinking, and he is a composer, of course. But I was surprised because at the beginning I sometimes said, ‘Oh, I would like to take more time for that phrase, and I would like to do more ritardando.’ For instance, there was a phrase where I felt I really needed to take a little more time to breathe, and I suggested a ritardando at a point which from the text point of view would be the best moment.
How did he react?
He was very sweet – he laughed and said: ‘You know me, I’m impossible! But, you know, to breathe there would be unmusical. You just breathe any time you want, but stay in the tempo!’ And you have to laugh because this is his way and you have to fit into that. But actually what I found in the end is he gives you the space within a kind of a frame – it has to stay a tempo, but within the bar you can move and be very free. I think this gives the music a special approach because a lot of other people really make these songs very Romantic; he’s more cool about it all.
So what do you feel you’ve learnt from the experience of performing these songs with Boulez a tempo?
I’m sure that when I do it with someone else it will be different again. But it’s good to remember that sometimes doing less is more. You can get too involved in working out your interpretation to the finest point – you can over-interpret, and what I learnt from Boulez was if you keep things simple, very often it’s better. Also you think before a concert you’re going to do it this way and that way, but in the end it’s a mutual work which has to fit together, so you can’t always do what you wanted to do.
Interview by Daniel Jaffé
Audio clip: Mahler: 'Verlorne Müh'' from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Picture credit: Mathias Bothor/Deutsche Grammophon
Magdalena Kožená’s recording of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with Christian Gerhaher and Pierre Boulez, is available on Deutsche Grammophon 477 9060 and is reviewed in the December issue of BBC Music Magazine