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S & H Recital Review

Schumann, Liszt, Richard Strauss: Jonas Kaufmann, Helmut Deutsch, Wigmore Hall, Friday 11th April 2003 (ME)


Another day, another tenor, another cute young man branded with the ‘next Fritz Wünderlich’ tag – this one has had even more ecstatic media attention lavished upon him than the previous pretenders to that title, perhaps because of the exceptional exposure he has received at the Edinburgh Festival: one can’t help feeling that if he had made his Wigmore Hall debut before such excursions, he would not have arrived here now with such high expectations. Jonas Kaufmann was the subject of a piece in a national newspaper which caused much chortling amongst my musical acquaintances, bearing as it did the headline ‘I don’t mind my sexy image…’ – can there be anyone on this planet over the age of 16 who still believes that an image is anything other than a construct of a publicist, an agent and a willing artist? – he is exotically handsome, described to me rather waspishly by another tenor as ‘the one that looks like a gypsy’ – his smouldering good looks and very confident platform manner reminding one somewhat of Juan Diego Flórez, but unfortunately, where the latter is the real thing in his field (that is, a tenore di grazia of a taste and refinement such as is heard perhaps once in a generation) Kaufmann, whilst possessing a striking voice, is hardly in the same league.

His programme was delectable: he has excellent taste himself, or he is guided by someone who has – one expects ‘Dichterliebe’ in such a recital, but not the Liszt sonnets and certainly not such a generous helping of Strauss. He began with Schumann’s ‘Kernerlieder’ which I always associate with the baritone voice and which is a test for any singer, a test for which Kaufmann was unfortunately not ready. The first two songs sounded coarse and loud, and ‘Frage’ entirely missed the sense of quiet awe which Matthias Goerne brings to it on his recording with Eric Schneider: Kaufmann was ably supported by Helmut Deutsch, but he seemed to be trying to sing this difficult music, with its deceptive simplicity, in far too rough-and-ready a style.

He seemed more comfortable with ‘Dichterliebe’, but there were many occasions when I found myself asking questions about the voice – it sounds as though there is a tremendous reserve of power behind it, but when that power is needed it is not always forthcoming in a helpful way; that said, he is at his best in forte and at his least effective when tenderness and nuance are required. ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ was rather choppy, with the crucial ‘So werd’ ich ganz’ marred by an intrusive ‘uh’ although he did give point to the final line. He seemed to think that ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ needed helping along with some gestures, but he would have done better to concentrate his efforts on giving some indication of the meaning of the phrase ‘Dem bricht das Herz entzwei’.

In such a well loved piece, we all have our favourite moments, the ones where we anticipate how the singer will take them – for me, the one word ‘heimlich’ (secretly) in ‘Allnächtlich im Traume seh’ ich dich’ says a great deal, but Kaufmann again went for a gesture rather than what I would prefer, which is a delicate sense of conspiracy in the voice rather than the hand. His finest moment was certainly the ecstatic closing stanza of the penultimate song, where the phrase ‘Ach! jenes Land der Wonne’ was given with just the right sense of transfigured bliss. The final song was less successful, but Deutsch played the wonderful postlude so winningly that most of us went off for our interval drinks in a fairly happy state of mind, save for one or two who decided that Kaufmann was not for them and did not wish to go back in for the second half.

Those who left did miss something, but it was not the Liszt settings of Petrarch, which, like the Kerner Lieder, are really not for every singer. Just as Kaufmann would do well to listen to Goerne in the Schumann, so he would benefit greatly from a close study of Fischer-Dieskau or Quasthoff in the Liszt. On this occasion, it was left to Deutsch to supply with his fluid, supple playing all the tenderness which the singing lacked: it is not enough to scoop up to those high notes, the singer must also give attention to the phrasing, and above all he must not sound constantly under strain, because if he does his singing cannot display the required dulcet quality which is so much part of a song like ‘I vidi in terra.’ This was not a happy group for Kaufmann, or for anyone intimate with these songs, but he deserves credit for programming them.

The rest of the recital was given over to Strauss, and Kaufmann here redeemed a great deal, not only for programming them but for his performance of the first song. It has always surprised me that more tenors do not sing ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ – it’s a glorious song which Kaufmann clearly adores, and although I would have liked a little more refinement at certain moments, he sang such phrases as ‘O komm, du wunderbare, ersehnte Nacht!’ with such intensity that I almost understood what the fuss had been about. ‘Ich trage meine Minne’ was less successful: this perfect little gem is another one which sets traps for the unwary – it’s not enough to sing it with folk-like simplicity, since special attention must be paid to moments such as ‘die mir beschieden sind’ which he tended to gloss over. ‘Breit über mein Haupt’ was beautifully sung but the end came very near to shouting rather than the desired crescendo.

At encore time, it was again Strauss which showed the singer at his best: ‘Zueignung’ was sung with blazing commitment and that sense of how a phrase is shaped which had been missing earlier on in the recital, although Helmut Deutsch’s playing of the postlude to ‘Mondnacht’ certainly gave us equal pause for thought as we reflected upon this recital. Mostly, it inspired me to rush home and listen to Fischer-Dieskau’s Strauss with renewed respect and love, but that’s surely no bad thing: Kaufmann is not a major Lieder singer, in fact I imagine that he would be far better suited to opera, but he presented an ambitious programme which revealed a voice of some promise and reminded us of the power of great music to transport us even if the medium is at times a little lacking in finesse.


Melanie Eskenazi



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