Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Jonas Kaufmann: Wagner
Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater (from Die Walküre)
Dass der mein Vater nicht ist (from Siegfried)
Allmächt'ger Vater, blick herab! (from Rienzi)
Inbrunst im Herzen (from Tannhäuser)
Am stillen Herd (from Die Meistersinger)
In fernem Land (from Lohengrin) extended version with second verse
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Markus Brück (bass-baritone)
Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin/Donald Runnicles
rec. no date or location given. DDD
DECCA 0289 478 5189 9 CD DH [74:21]
It is to be expected that Jonas Kaufmann, currently the ‘best-known’ tenor from Germany, would honour the Wagner anniversary year with a recital CD of further excerpts from his operas. Though not presented chronologically this current choice seems to be attempting to illustrate how his compositional style developed from the earlier ‘numbers’ operas to the later ones that meld words and music in a way only Wagner can. Parsifal is missing though has been included on a previous CD. Tristan is only obliquely referred to in the unique – for a tenor - rendition of the Wesendonck-Lieder that contains some of the composer’s preliminary ideas for that opera.
Dass der mein Vater nicht ist from Siegfried and Am stillen Herd from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg are not even ‘bleeding chunks’ in the common usage but simply wrenched out of the complete works to give Kaufmann something different to sing. It reminds me of the Reginald Goodall Memorial Concert in 1991 when Britain’s last great heroic tenor, Alberto Remedios, was initially asked to sing just the last death throes of Siegfried’s Narration. Naturally, he considered this ‘not on’ and by singing the whole thing left the audience in the Royal Festival Hall with a reminder of how wonderful he had been in that role. I mention this because Kaufmann’s Siegmund and Lohengrin are relatively known quantities. Walther from Die Meistersinger he has sung live once in Edinburgh in 2006 (review), but he has yet to sing Rienzi, Tannhäuser and Siegfried in the complete operas … and possibly never will. Regarding Edinburgh, I mentioned a lack of vocal weight and the use of a ‘crooning falsetto’. I will come back to this later.
Mention of Remedios, the most Italianiate of recent Wagnerian tenors, and of my obvious admiration for him, reminds me of other types of Wagner heldentenors I have most admired over the past decades from Jess Thomas, Peter Hoffmann, and Siegfried Jerusalem to Robert Dean Smith and Klaus Florian Vogt. All these singers have a brightness of sound that Kaufmann audibly resists. It is as though he wants to present himself as the antithesis of his compatriot, Vogt, who is little known outside Germany. That singer’s luminous clarity of tone is at odds with Kaufmann’s occasional darkly baritonal timbre that seems to be his impression of what a Wagner tenor should sound like. This is never more noticeable than in Siegmund’s Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater that for me is so dark that I find it uneasy to listen to. His cries of Wälse! Wälse! are not nearly as thrilling as Robert Dean Smith’s should be on a forthcoming live Pentatone recording from Berlin.
When Siegfried is reflecting under the linden tree about how he longs to know what his mother was like, Kaufmann’s beautiful brighter sound hints at what his true voice actually is and heads upwards towards that ‘crooning falsetto’. His musical intelligence and superb technique is not in question but I doubt he would have the stamina for either of the Siegfrieds or the relentlessly high Tannhäuser. Here with the Rome Narration Inbrunst in Herzen, despite being well sung, it does not truly embody the edge-of-insanity and full-on bitterness his character experiences at this point in the opera. Some might suggest he lightens his voice for Lohengrin’s In fernem Land which is here given in the original version with the second verse that Wagner cut before the première and is only rarely performed. I would propound that this is his more natural sound. Even so, he never approaches the vocal ease and exaltation Vogt achieves in what is his Wagner rival’s signature role.
This CD is great for those more familiar with recorded Wagner rather than as it is performed in the opera house. Perhaps the best case to be made for this new release is the wonderful support Kaufmann gets from Donald Runnicles and the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin. The orchestral playing has a compulsive spontaneity that suggests there were not that many ‘takes’ to from which to choose.
Another good reason to give this new Wagner selection a listen is Kaufmann’s interpretation of the Wesendonck-Lieder that strongly challenges the best female singers for exceptional legato and beauty of tone.
As reported in the booklet accompanying the CD, when Kaufmann was asked about singing these songs he quoted the following lines from Im Treibhaus that in translation are:-
Well I know, poor plant,
we share the same fate:
though bathed in light and splendour,
our home is not here!
He suggests: ‘That is precisely Wagner’s situation in his Swiss exile. Objectively things were going well for him, yet he didn’t feel at home. Doesn’t that lend itself to being sung by a man?’ Admittedly it took repeated listenings before I was totally won over by an interpretation that lacks the eroticism with which a soprano or mezzo can imbue these songs. Kaufmann is clearly a Lieder singer of great emotional range and vocal subtlety. Unfortunately the world demands of him that he be the future of Wagner singing and the Walther, Tristan and Parsifal of some opera management’s dreams. It is to be hoped that Jonas Kaufmann is intelligent enough to know his own limitations and leave these and other intense, stamina-sapping and vocally demanding roles to those born to sing them. Those singers are out there somewhere - I am sure they are. People just need to look hard enough.

Jim Pritchard
Kaufmann is intelligent enough to leave these intense, stamina-sapping and vocally demanding roles to those born to sing them.

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