Even when singing something conventional, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is an individualistic artist who thinks for herself. Perhaps never more so than Thursday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
Her recital had a special buzz in this opening of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society season: Kožená appears in this country only periodically. We probably owe this concert to her husband, Simon Rattle, having an extended U.S. residency conducting the Metropolitan Opera's Tristan und Isolde production, allowing the family to set up shop in New York.
Her program lacked any crowd-pleasers. Dvorak was represented by his Op. 2 songs, Richard Strauss by his flaky "Drei Lieder der Ophelia," and Schoenberg (a name that still makes some concertgoers wince) with cabaret songs, a.k.a. "Brettl-Lieder."
The recital's overall success was at least half due to pianist Malcolm Martineau, whose exquisite handling of each song's postlude made you wish for an instant encore. But even the duo's artistic persuasion didn't make a great case for Schoenberg.
Dating from 1901, the music is agreeable enough but, in keeping with the cabaret genre, is more about storytelling than making musical statements. The words are full of insider humor, but even as Kožená gave enjoyably randy treatment to the double entendres, the jokes were old.
The high points? Selected Wolf songs from his Eduard Morike collection, all masterpieces, had some of the finest performances I've heard. Kožená's low-vibrato voice has middle-register lushness and a thinner, edgier upper range, able to maintain a firm purpose when the vocal lines are making their way through the Morike poems without any semblance of support from the piano. Rather than molding every phrase for maximum impact, she built her interpretation toward the song's emotional center.
She also turned on a dime for Wolf's mercurial flights of expression that made their own kind of sense in Martineau's hands. For all their many moving parts, the songs were never tidied up with logic imposed from the outside, and thus were allowed to reveal their specific poetic identities.
In vocal terms, the recital peaked with three Fauré songs that show the composer spinning magic out of commonplace musical materials. Though Strauss operas find truth in the maddest of characters, his trio of Ophelia songs settle for external description. Kožená created such humanity within the music that she more or less filled in the blanks.