|Standpoint., December 2010
In Praise of Kaufmania
minutes before Jonas Kaufmann's Wigmore Hall recital began on October 31,
the entire queue outside the ladies' room was smiling. In the auditorium, so
was most of the assembling audience. Getting into that Central London
concert had made everyone feel as if they'd snaffled a golden ticket for
Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Kaufmann, the new great tenor of the
moment, singing Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin with
his mentor Helmut Deutsch at the piano, could have sold out a venue five
times the Wigmore's size.
A few years ago, few people who
were not regulars at the Zurich Opera had even heard of him. Today, though,
self-styled "Kauf-maniacs" follow his career, and the man himself, from
country to country, from opera to recital. And I can't blame them. For once,
there's fire behind this smoke.
Jonas Kaufmann is not a manufactured
record company sensation. Instead, he is a consummate performer who brings
to his roles the authenticity of empathy, intelligence and culture (in the
educated sense), with the beauty of his voice always serving the larger
picture. In Die schöne Müllerin words, character, phrasing and tone fused
into a Wigmore-sized Gesamtkunstwerk; the authenticity of the emotional life
he conveys is the core of it. But it's the final, indefinable quality of
spine-tingling truth that tells you you're listening to something that's not
just good, but extraordinary.
He has made a select handful of
recordings thus far: repertoire is chosen carefully, promotion is not
remotely excessive. The latest CD is of verismo arias, including a harrowing
account of "Vesti la Giubba" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. He has a book
out — but only in German. His official website, too, is in German alone.
(It's a moot point whether this tells us much about international cultural
expectations of English-speaking countries. These days, many CD booklets
place their notes in German before those in English, which might conceivably
indicate that we are now regarded as philistines.)
leapt to attention in the UK with his debut CD of Strauss Lieder (on
Harmonia Mundi) four years ago. I was sent the recording to review and put
it on without expectation — only to find myself struck speechless by the
magnificent Zueignung that opened the disc. Here was that longed-for rarity,
a real, heroic German romantic tenor. It must have had the same effect on
someone at Decca, which soon snapped him up, and on Angela Gheorghiu, who
borrowed him to record Madama Butterfly with her for EMI. He is not confined
to German music but equally fabulous in Italian and French repertoire, with
Cavaradossi, Don José and Werther among his most celebrated operatic roles,
besides Lohengrin and Beethoven's Florestan.
But Kaufmann does not go
in for image-making. For him it extends little further than posing as the
central figure of Caspar David Friedrich's painting Mountaineer in a Misty
Landscape on his album of German romantic arias, Sehnsucht ("Longing").
Neither picture nor title was exactly calculated to appeal to the Simon
Cowell generation — and the English edition removed "Sehnsucht", putting the
word MOZART first. There's been promotion, but of a restrained, tasteful and
delightfully old-fashioned kind. Kaufmann has no need for crossover nonsense
or PR in overdrive. Indeed, it is likely that "Kaufmania" is a genuine
I've been told repeatedly in the publishing
industry that launches, advertising and press coverage make no difference to
sales: apparently all that counts is "word of mouth". This can set off the
bullshit alarm — it seems obvious that a book will sell better if its image
is plastered across a bus. But there's a kernel of truth nonetheless:
nothing sells a product as reliably as a personal, heartfelt recommendation
from a friend. So the manner in which the music industry has mass-produced
"stars" for the past 25 years is in serious danger of having its bluff
called by Kaufmania.
We want great artists. Yes, we do. Honest.
Forget the women musicians draped over sofas, pouting; the purveyors of
miked-up classico-lite who are passed off, ridiculously, as opera singers;
and the artists for whom the ratio of sales to story increases the more the
latter tells of mental illness or reality TV. All of that is disposable
fast-food wrapping, discarded for recycling when there's no enduring
artistry to sustain it. It's worth noting that Nigel Kennedy is still going
strong because under that punky image is a passionate, devoted violinist
with a technique to die for and an insatiable hunger for music-making.
Kaufmann, 41 and originally from Munich, is to the best of my knowledge
a regular bloke and devoted father of three who has worked his way steadily
and sensibly up the operatic tree. Rolando Villazón, younger still, should
have been his chief competitor but has already been chewed up and spat out,
his career effectively wrecked, by the industry. Kaufmann's magic exceeds
Villazón's in any case. He can pack a punch with voice size when he wants
to, but he saves the impact for the moments when the music and the character
truly require it. In Die schöne Müllerin it was the quiet moments you had to
watch, the nuances of colour that revealed the hero's psychology — such as
the shock, a few songs in, when we understood how he was building the
tension and just how much it was going to hurt when the tragedy struck.
Artistry of this quality speaks for itself, and word spreads quickly
because it's so rare. We wouldn't value it so much if it were commonplace.
But it throws into sharp relief the phoniness of others. Much excessive
promotion is there because the artists' musicianship is not strong enough
for word of mouth to do the trick. And to be fair to the companies, which
can seem desperate, they have to push comparatively indifferent artists
because usually that is all they have. Meanwhile, other performers, often
fine musicians with all the humility in the world, moulder away in their
practice rooms because they lack the necessary extra milligram of compulsive
inspiration. In both cases the best is the enemy of the good.
"Kaufmania" brings hope that great musicianship will out. So why not stop
the hype, shut down the marketing, save on the advertising budget? Just let
people hear the reality. The music — and the truth behind it — will do the