Magdalena Kozena, the high-profile, Czech mezzo-soprano, and her equally high-profile accompanist, the Russian-born, Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman, chose a fascinating sample of repertoire for their recital Sunday night presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.
Four of the five composers on the bill came from the mainstream, but the works selected for this occasion did not.
In Mussorgsky's song cycle "The Nursery," which evokes the alternately animated, awed and mischievous mindset of a child, Kozena offered an abundance of colorful vocal touches -- even a nose-thumbing gesture for good measure. Bronfman articulated the subtly brilliant keyboard part with terrific flair.
The exquisite, often wry sound world of Ravel's "Histoires Naturelles" likewise found both artists doing finely communicative work, especially in the lovely languor of "Le Martin-pecheur."
Kozena's dark, evenly produced tone found another great outlet in the six songs of romance and nature from Rachmaninoff's Op. 38.
Bronfman likewise summoned expressive power every step of the way, digging into the richly woven accompaniment. Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff frequently ended art songs with elongated codas for the piano, and these passages took on extra value in Bronfman's hands.
Bartok's earthy "Village Scenes," with their deliciously spiky rhythms, inspired another burst of vivid music-making.
All of this would have been enough to make the recital distinctive, but there as more -- the local premiere of "Three Melodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound" by French composer Mac-Andre Dalbavie, a work co-commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall and Shriver Hall Concert Series.
The text, "The Unmoving Cloud" from Pound's "Cathay," has inspired a transparent, finely detailed setting from Dalbavie.
The vocal lines, sensual and elegant, convey the imagery of rain, loneliness, the comforts of nature and wine.
There are hazy hints of Debussy and Ravel along the way; even, in Melodie II, a touch of Rachmaninoff in the piano's dark harmonies. A keyboard motive that descends in the first song and ascends in the last provides a telling thread.
Kozena sang the music sensitively and articulated the English works more clearly than many a singer whose first language actually is English.
There was an affecting encore -- Schumann's "Wehmut" from "Liederkreis," which includes the line, "I can sometimes sing as if I were happy. But, in secret, tears well up ... no one feels the pains, the deep sorrow in the song."
Kozena produced her tenderest vocal shading of the evening here, reaching the lied's poignant heart, while Bronfman matched her nuance for nuance.