By Juan Antonio Muñoz H,
Liederabend, Paris, TCE, 20. Februar 2012
Paris, Monday, February 20th, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
The Lied is the most difficult vocal genre, only comparable to Monteverdi’s music in its laments. The artist is alone by the piano, projecting his voice into the vastness of the hall. Any defect, any negligence, any lack of concentration will remain sealed therein.

On February 20th Paris lived a miraculous moment, with the audience in a state of contemplation. Those who were there faced the depth of the human condition and were able to heal some of the wounds that life leaves in the soul. It was due to the music, certainly, but above all to Jonas Kaufmann and to his pianist, Helmut Deutsch.

Kaufmann had already explored the mystery inhabiting this music in his albums dedicated to the lieder of Richard Strauss and Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin”. Music which seems to be the acme, the goal —the Grail— of lyricism. “Love and pain shared my heart”, wrote Schubert in his diary.

It is in the romantic spirit, with returning ghosts and forests in shadow (Caspar David Friedrich’s pictures are exceptional in showing this), where the principles distinguishing a Lied from any other song are crystallized: the staging of an extremely refined sensitivity in which nature plays an active part. Thus, forests of linden trees and flowers, river beds, dawn, dusk or midnight decorate the environments described in the spiritual and physical life of the men and women who sing their suffering or joy.

The Lied also prioritizes a nostalgic outlook on life, barely sweetened by the hope of finding a place where things may be different. Rarely has abstract musical art been so close to the wounds which make up love, desire and death in the human spirit.

Jonas Kaufmann —with his voice, his hands, his look, his gestures— renders this into a reality which can almost be touched. Such is the enormous power of his expressiveness, such is the beauty of the thousand colors of his mixed material, such is his sincere, direct and natural commitment in its unfathomable complexity. One can notice that something is going on inside his soul and his body and that every sound issues from some personal and old process, as if he were the channel of an arcane world to which we only gain access through his art.

Kaufmann’s program in Paris was vast. An admirable work which explores the Lied when it leaves Schubert’s hands, when the social fabric of the 19th century had become denser and when nostalgia and melancholy were not only nurtured by dark sweetness, but also by mind-related mysteries.

In short, the Lied of the time when questions about death, desire and love peered into the abyss, yearning for the lost light. Songs of the twilight of Romanticism, songs of the “ample and silent peace / so deep at sunset” (“Im Abendrot”, by Richard Strauss), the lines of that day “full of rain and storm” and those tombs with the words “We were” (“Auf dem Kirchhofe”, by Brahms).

Not that these works were in the repertoire, but Jonas Kaufmann seems to have assumed their essence to give volume to his recital, a journey full of mysteries, overlooking the infinite.

He started with six lieder by Franz Liszt, in his encounters with Heine and Goethe, with further poems by Emil Kuh and Nikolaus Lenau. Liszt composed nearly 80 melodies and there are few audio documents of his Lieder notebooks, a thorny vocal and expressive territory (Sylvia Sass and Andras Schiff made a great contribution in their record released by Decca in 1981). Reactive, dark, dramatic and passionate, occasionally violent, his pen seeks a sometimes harsh voice, willing to constant modulation and to express hidden meanings.

Kaufmann hit the mark in everything and brought the audience to their knees with his pianissimos, his line, his color range, his woeful pitch and musical accuracy in pages whose characteristic is tonal liberty and harmonic progression. In “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” (“In the Rhine, in the beautiful torrent”), the tenor was moving in phrases such as “in the desert of my life” (“In meines Lebens Wildnis....”) and was able to transmit the state of someone gazing at the Cologne Cathedral, while in “Ihr Glocken von Marling” (“The bells of Marling ”), with its melancholy insistence, the artist draws an impressionistic picture about the intuition of something that has been lost. He opened fire with “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder” (“Poisoned are my songs”), eerie invocation to the poems poisoned by spite. “Es war ein König in Thule”, with text of “Faust”, was a great dramatic scene, as well as “Die drei Zigeuner”, which had the tone of almost an anecdote being told among friends commenting the hardships of this world.

On hearing these works one is able to notice the “Tristram” dwelling in Kaufmann, maybe because Liszt’s lieders have an unmistakable scent of Wagner.

The journey continued with Gustav Mahler, that is to say, metaphysical angst, intellectual critique, questions with an elusive answer. They were the five lieder with texts by Friedrich Rückert (“Rückert Lieder”), which lead one into a Vienna of utmost refinement. A Vienna which has already met Gustav Klimt, and therefore the sound is of a subtle preciosity and concentrated emotion. A real test of the heart in the voice —or voices— of Kaufmann.

With “(...) I breathe in silence / in the perfume of the linden tree / the sweet perfume of love” (phrase of “Ich atmet’einen linden Duft”) the hall was left in suspense.

In “You love for beauty, therefore you do not love me” (of “Liebst du um Schönheit”) he comments on the disbelief —and the hope— of sometime being loved only “for love”.

“Your curiosity is treachery” (of “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder”) boils in obsessive demands which start with the myth of Psyche and Eros, and reach “Lohengrin”.

“(...) One would think I was dead! / And, in truth, I little care” (of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”) is the song of a loner who lives in dreams in his heaven, his song and his love.

And “I looked at the sky full of stars and none of them smiled at me” (of “Um Mitternacht”) is the highest expression of grief and delivery (only Christa Ludwig sang this once with the same intensity of Jonas Kaufmann).

It is amazing that the best singer in the French language today should be a German. Paris fully appreciated it. Kaufmann is already opera history with his “Werther” (Massenet), Des Grieux (“Manon”), “Faust” (Gounod) and Don José (“Carmen”, Bizet), and he will surely be a great Eneas in “The Trojans” (Berlioz) which London is preparing for its Olympic year. Some years ago he was scheduled to sing “Romeo and Juliet” (Gounod) and he would have been the best Montague lover (perhaps he still might be).

His arrival to Henri Duparc’s melodies forebode extensions to Fauré, but also to opera titles of which he may not even have thought about. Being a tenor with a baritone color, he could well sing —let’s dream!— “Pelléas et Mélisande” (Debussy) and “Hamlet” (Thomas), both of them characters of which he would render great interpretative creations.

“Such as ‘L’invitation a la valse’ was written, I would like a musician to compose ‘L’invitation au voyage’ to offer it to the beloved woman, to the chosen sister”. This was written by the poet Charles Baudelaire, inspirer of many melodies which travel through paths of harmful flowers, sensing water games, the harmony of the evening and past life, in the non-programmatic visions of Duparc, Fauré, De Séverac, Saguet, Chabrier and Debussy.

Kaufmann invoked Duparc on this occasion, starting and closing his five chosen songs with poems of Baudelaire: “L’invitation au voyage” and “La vie antérieure”. Both of them allow an ample knowledge of the possible encounter between the notes and the poems of the poet of “Les fleurs du mal”, which have a musical life of their own. The result is a host of songs that seem to have in twilight the spirit itself of the melody, as evanescent music issues from their poetry, accentuating colors, the way of declining the phrases and the meaning of the words behind the scenes.

The “luxury, calm and voluptuousness” (“L’invitation au voyage”) took hold of Kaufmann, who from that emotional state was led to the indeclinable invitation to the dream and kiss of “Phidylé”, unsettling the audience with the bite of love of “Le manoir de Rosamonde” and silencing it with the terminal calm of “Chanson triste”. The tenor found another peak in his version of “La vie antérieure”, sung with holy concentration —the gods (his, ours) were there— the description of paradise, which consists in feeding a “painful secret” which is never revealed. He himself was moved at the end of this masterful performance.

Richard Strauss invites us to revisit the open and attractive mausoleum in which Wagner left his lovers (“Mild und leise”). The melody —essential element in Straussian art— triumphs because it is in the genetic origin of the composer, and refers him to a song of noble and refined wood. An origin related to his German birth and home. Strauss composed over 200 Lieder which do nothing but confirm his complicity of spirit with this genre of concise numbers, so powerfully expressive. There is no better example of this than the “Vier letzte Lieder” and how marvelous it would be —if sex transmutation existed— if Kaufmann were able to sing them one day.

But there were many Strauss lieder for him, six of which were included in the program, and many others in the seven encores! (there were eight in Berlin).

In the game of exchange between the voice and the listener, seduction is an acceptable strategy. The listener longs to be reached by the voice which takes him to unexpected heights or depths. He recognizes himself in that voice and sound waves run through his body, reincarnated in blood flow and fluid. That is why Tristram and Isolde finally love each other, in the one who listens and the one who sings. Thus, climax is reached beyond the score, outside time and space.

A well-constructed Liederabend achieves precisely this. And the audience —naive and seduced— is willing to die, simply because it rediscovers that it is able to love, and that it loves.

And that is due to the voice, in this case, that of Jonas Kaufmann.

After these there were other pieces such as “Schlechtes Wetter”, “Schön sind, doch kalt die Himmelssterne”, “Befreit” and “Heimliche Aufforderung” (“secret invitation” which nobody could ever refuse... “Oh come, wonderful, ardently desired night”). The voice is silent for a moment and the piano —with the extraordinary maestro Helmut Deutsch— assumes the leading role in the journey: “Morgen!” is Strauss’s most endearing Lied and Jonas Kaufmann peacefully tells us that one day we, the blessed, will meet “in the bosom of this land breathing with sunshine”, and that “over us will fall the mute silence of happiness”.

Finally, in “Cécile”, Kaufmann makes it very clear what “trembling in lonely nights (...) with no one to comfort you” means.
A lifetime experience to be treasured in our hearts.


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