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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise, D911
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor); Helmut Deutsch (piano)
rec. 22-27 October 2013, August Everding Saal, Grünwald, Germany
German texts, English and French translations included
SONY CLASSICAL 88883 795652 [70:16]

Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch recorded Die schöne Müllerin back in 2009. That recording, made while Kaufmann was still a Decca artist, was recorded live in concert. Now, early on in his new contract with Sony, he gives us a recording of Winterreise made under studio conditions. I bought the earlier recording when it came out and I found a great deal to admire in it so I was eager to hear Kaufmann in this second great Wilhelm Müller cycle.
 
It’s perhaps worth making an initial observation, even at the risk of stating the obvious. Kaufmann has a very big, operatic voice that’s well suited to, say, Puccini and Verdi and with more than a baritonal tint to it. As such, though he’s more than capable of fining down his voice – and does so frequently here - he offers a very different experience in this cycle as compared to the lighter voices of tenors such as Mark Padmore (review), Peter Pears (review) or Peter Schreier (review). I’m aware that all three of those singers – and many others who have recorded Winterreise - are no strangers to the operatic stage but I fancy that in Kaufmann’s case the balance of his career is more weighted towards opera than to Lieder and one is frequently reminded, while listening, that here is a musical actor at work.
 
Kaufmann comes to Winterreise with a formidable operatic reputation but he is less celebrated as a recitalist, the earlier recording of Die schöne Müllerin notwithstanding. However, it is clear from listening to this performance that he has thought very carefully about the musical and dramatic issues of the cycle as a whole and of the individual songs. Revisiting a few of the songs from his account of Die schöne Müllerin I formed the impression, perhaps wrongly, that his voice sounded lighter in that 2009 recording than is the case here. That’s not to imply for a minute that Kaufmann does not employ a light voice when appropriate in Winterreise. It may be that he feels that Winterreise requires darker colours and more vocal heft – and that’s a very defensible point of view – or it may be that in the four years that separate these recordings his voice has acquired additional hues and has matured even further into an even more impressive and varied instrument.
 
Throughout this performance Kaufmann deploys an impressively wide range of vocal colouring. He gives an early example of this in Gefrorne Tränen where the colours enhance his expressiveness. The very last phrase, ‘des ganzen Winters Eis!’, is delivered with a very full, operatic tone which, I must say, took me by surprise at first. I’d expected strong singing at this point – the phrase is marked ‘stark’, after all – but this is the thrilling sound of an operatic tenor pretty much in full cry. It’s not the last example of Kaufmann ‘letting go’ in this performance, either. However, such moments are reserved for the appropriate junctures and so make their mark all the more tellingly when they occur.
 
On the other side of the ledger, as it were, Kaufmann often fines down his singing to an impressively controlled mezza voce. Among several examples that I noted were the final stanza of Gute Nacht, the third and sixth stanzas of Frühlingstraum and the whole of Der Leiermann.
 
Having a singer with Kaufmann’s dynamic range and dramatic sensibility pays real dividends in terms of the contrasts that he can effect within a song. Thus, for example, there’s an abundance of dynamic contrast amid the turbulence of Die Wetterfahne and again in Wasserflut. In Einsamkeit the delivery of the first two stanzas sounds withdrawn but Kaufmann turns on the intensity and power for the third stanza. If you want to hear an example of his dramatic sensibility listen to Irrlicht; this is a performance by a singer accustomed to the stage and who can deploy a wide range of colours and dynamics to bring out all the meaning of the words.
 
For all Kaufmann’s vocal prowess there are some facets of the cycle that I don’t believe he brings out as well as some other singers I’ve heard. This is not to diminish his achievements here but rather to emphasise that certain types of singers are better equipped than others at bringing out nuances in these songs. For example, consider Der Greise Kopf. The singing as such is very impressive but I miss the glacial chill that a singer such as Schreier could bring to the opening lines. That said, Kaufmann is very expressive in his own way, not least in the bald tone with which he delivers the last line of the second stanza. His reading of Die Krähe is compelling but I’ve heard some other versions in which the scariness of the crow’s presence is brought out more vividly. However, Schubert’s music is so inexhaustible and so multi-faceted that it’s unreasonable to expect that any singer will be able to deliver everything.
 
That last statement is true of the three tenors that I mentioned at the start of this review. All of them – and others - bring things to Winterreise that are remarkable in their own right and so does Jonas Kaufmann. His singing of this cycle is very impressive.
 
The success of the reading is due in no small measure to the contribution of pianist Helmut Deutsch. He is a renowned accompanist and his experience and insights bring a considerable amount to this performance.
 
Jonas Kaufmann’s many admirers will certainly want to hear this new recording and I think that Lieder collectors will also want to hear one of the most acclaimed of today’s voices in some of the greatest Lieder in the repertoire.
 
John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Winterreise



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