The attentive music lovers in Memorial Hall heard an unhackneyed and imaginative program of rare art songs in one of only three joint American performances by the great Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená and virtuoso pianist Yefim Bronfman. Four languages were used in the selected texts: Russian, French, Hungarian, and English. In addition to Eastern European rarities and a better known French set, a special joint commission of Carnegie Hall, Shriver Hall Concert Series, and Carolina Performing Arts was given.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was the most original of the Russian Nationalist circle known as “The Mighty Handful.” Eschewing German models and harmonic practices, he sought to bring the language of the common people into music. His cycle of seven children’s songs, Detskaya (The Nursery) (1868, 1870-72), set to the composer’s own texts, is the fullest realization of his goal. The first song, “With Nanny,” is the most experimental. It perfectly portrays the headlong rush of a child’s speech and rapid shifts of whims as he pesters his nanny for a bedtime story. “In the Corner” is a dramatic scene in which the nanny angrily disciplines the plaintive child. The third and sixth songs, “The Beetle” and “The Cat,” are lively animal stories. The fourth song, “With the Doll,” is a lovely lullaby which is followed by “Going to Sleep” with its charming long list for which the child prays. The seventh song uses brilliant piano accompaniment and onomatopoeia to evoke the child’s headlong ride.

All the composers on Kožená’s program placed extraordinary importance on the clear projection of the words in their texts. The mezzo-soprano’s diction throughout her program was simply breathtaking. This was further enhanced by the singer-actress’ ability to bring characters to life with body language and an extraordinary range of facial expressions. This skill allowed her to bring Mussorgsky’s cycle to vivid life as she seamlessly metamorphosed from stern Nanny to impish child. Bronfman is a virtuoso who can easily toss off a Rachmaninoff Third Concerto yet he so deftly scaled back his piano’s dynamics, with the lid fully raised, as to never come close to covering Kožená’s lines. All this while weaving a marvelous tapestry using color, dynamics, and rhythm.

Marc-André Dalbavie (b.1961) is considered to be a member of the “spectralist” school of French composers in which the focus can be on mining a teeming world of harmonic spectra from a single note. Dalbavie’s style often brings music into sharp focus on a single unison pitch or explores instrumental timbres and new ways of mixing them. He eschewed his more radical techniques in this special commission in conjuncture with “The Rite of Spring at One Hundred.” Dalbavie was selected because he shares an exploratory interest in color and rhythm with Igor Stravinsky. Three Mélodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound draws its text, the poem “The Unmoving Cloud,” from the radical poet’s free “translation” of ancient Chinese verse in his 1915 collection Cathay. The three songs deal with Pound’s focus on depression and loneliness. The original Chinese source was by the poet To-Em-Mei.

Kožená’s delivery of Pound’s English text was crystal clear without a trace of an accent and the emotional weight was perfectly judged. Bronfman brought out the full kaleidoscopic range of Dalbavie’s keyboard color and rhythm. The set is a worthy addition to the repertoire. In an era when so many commissions are either fleeting fluff or acoustical “root canal,” it was sad to see audience applause disappear as the performers left the stage without even a “polite” recall!

The Histoires Naturelles, Op. 50, a set of witty musical portraits by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) have often been performed in our region but none were more sparkling and vivid as that of Kožená and Bronfman.

After intermission, there was more than a hint of French Impressionism in the scoring of Six Songs, Op. 38 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). A palette of color had been added to the dour Russian’s rich steam of plush Romanticism of the composer’s earlier style. Kožená’s honeyed, rich low range was glorious and the myriad of sounds Bronfman conjured in support was marvelous.

Art songs by Béla Bartók (1881-1945) are real rarities on recording much less in live performance. The five songs of Dedinské scény (Village Scenes), BB87a reflect the composer’s deep interest in recording the vanishing folksongs in the early twentieth century and the influence of his studies in the formation of his mature style. For these songs, the composer used the folk songs as a base around which he elaborated freely. Kožená and Bronfman performed these pieces brilliantly and were justly rewarded with a spontaneous standing ovation.

Kožená’s mastery of yet a fifth language was evident in her encore “Wehmut” from Liederkreis, Op. 39 by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). This was one of the most memorable recitals on the Carolina Performing Arts series in recent years.

Kudos to the CPA Series for supplementing the program book’s sparse notes with an insert containing Janet E. Bedell’s excellent notes and full texts and translations for the Carnegie Hall performance. Brickbats for the parents of the child whose sotto voce comments floated across the hall’s fine acoustics throughout too much of the concert.