The ancient oral tradition of folksong and instrumental music is freighted with lore and mythology. It lies at the heart of our culture. Indeed, it is the heart of our culture. So, it’s no surprise that for centuries it has inspired composers who, rather than destroy the raw simplicity of a folk song, want to enhance its primal spirit.

This recording of popular and folk song arrangements from four acknowledged masters of musical alchemy grew out of a residency by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and her husband, the conductor Sir Simon Rattle, with the Czech Philharmonic. It showcases not only Kožená’s considerable vocal artistry but the superb playing of the orchestra under the baton of the ever-thoughtful Rattle.

Béla Bartók’s enthusiasm for ethnomusicology and obsessive collecting of folk songs from around Eastern Europe are well-documented – as is his extraordinary gift for orchestration. The latter almost steals the show in his Five Hungarian Folksongs. But whether in the doleful Old Lament or the spirited Virag’s lamps are burning brightly, Kožená is the orchestra’s equal, capturing letter and spirit with veracity and aplomb. 

And while Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs, written for his wife and frequent collaborator Cathy Berberian, display a much wider diversity of style, nationality and orchestration – all captured with expressive fervour by Kožená, Rattle and orchestra – it’s the sun-kissed delicacy of Ravel’s Five Popular Greek Melodies which Kožená warms to with a Lieder-like finesse. Xavier Montsalvatge’s Five Canciones Negras explode with the colour of Cuba and the West Indies, but it’s the by turns ironic and nostalgic qualities of poetry and music that Kožená zeroes in on here.

Listen on Apple Music

Title: Folk Songs
Works: Music by Bartók, Berio, Ravel and Montsalvatge
Performers: Magdalena Kožená ms, Czech Philharmonic/Sir Simon Rattle
Label: Pentatone PTC5187075

Subscribe to Limelight