Having already conquered Handel, Vivaldi and Bach on recent discs, Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená is back in the Baroque yet again, but this time treading earlier and much less familiar ground. Lettere Amorose, her latest effort, is an esoteric and enchanting selection of vocal music by Monteverdi and his Italian contemporaries. These are songs, rather than arias: intimate and relatively simple in scope, and given luminous voice by Kožená.

Rarities abound – nothing here could claim to be over-recorded – and Kožená revels palpably in the possibilities of this colourful and crucial musical era. From the tripping dance rhythms of Kapsberger’s Felici gl’animi, to Vitali’s silvery O bei lumi, to a vividly bereft rendition of Si dolce è il tormento (Monteverdi’s only appearance in the program), she is in superb form, remaining true to both the period and her own distinct, emotionally driven style. Another notable inclusion is Merula’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) lullaby Hor ch’é di dormire, in which Mary sings to the infant Jesus of his own crucifixion, accompanied by a ground bass of just two chords – a deceptively simple piece which Kožená sustains with devastating sincerity. Her opalescent timbre is well suited to this music, her vibrato neither excessive nor needlessly withdrawn, and the small-scale nature of the songs keeps her occasional tendency for overblown expressivity nicely in check.

Period band Private Musicke, led by Pierre Pitzl on guitar and viola da gamba, provide strong and sympathetic partnership. Their transparent, percussive playing lends the recital a winningly improvisatory air, blending attractively with Kožená’s singing and shimmering in the handful
of instrumental arrangements and improvisations scattered through the disc.