International Record Review, April 2013
Hugh Canning
Wagner - Jonas Kaufmann - IRR OUTSTANDING
With every new solo album — and increasingly appearances in complete opera recordings on disc and DVD —Jonas Kaufmann establishes himself as the outstanding lyric-dramatic tenor of his generation. Although he is less known as a Wagnerian in the UK — not, of course, in his native Germany and, more recently, New York — than as Verdi-Puccini verismo tenor and perhaps the greatest Don Jose in Carmen since the glory days of Jose Carreras, he has streadily and surely been working his way towards the great Heldentenor parts. At Brian McMaster's final Edinburgh Festival (2006) he essayed the, to date, only Walther von Stolzing of his career in concert (although he intimates in a booklet interview with the German vocal expert Thomas Voigt that he has future plans to sing the role in the theatre) and since then has added Parsifal, Lohengrin and Siegmund to his repertoire. All three of those roles were featured in his thrilling German opera 'arias' album —'Mozart to Wagner' — conducted by Claudio Abbado (reviewed in October 2009).

Now he delves into roles which he is still undecided about singing onstage and, most remarkable of all, a performance of the Mottl orchestrations of Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder. Of course these settings of poems by his unreciprocating beloved, Mathilde Wesendonck, a married woman, were written for 'Frauenstimme' (a woman's voice) but Kaufmann argues persuasively that Wesendonck's texts, particularly that for 'Im Treibhaus' (In the Hothouse'), reflect the exiled Wagner's state of mind. The Wagner hero most obviously missing from this selection is Tristan, the protagonist of an opera partly written under the spell of his unrequited love for Frau Wesendonck, but, of course, two of these songs are 'studies' for Tristan and Isolde and share the music-drama's hothouse atmosphere of amorous delirium and its chromatic harmonies.

By curious chance, on the day I sat down to write this review, a reissue of Rene Kollo's 1992 Electrola recording of the Mottl-orchestrated song sequence, with the same Deutschen Oper orchestra, conducted by Christian Thielemann, no less, dropped through my letter box. By the time Kollo came to set the songs down — in a Wagner-Strauss programme that includes the closing scene of Act 1 of Die Walküre and two Lieder by the other Richard, Strauss — 'Verführung', Op. 33 No. 1 and the last of the Four Last Songs, 'Im Abendrot' — he had complete recordings of most of Wagner's Heldentenor roles behind him, his first Stolzing (Karajan/ EMI) as long before as 1970. Already a Wagner veteran in his mid-fifties in 1992, Kollo can't compete with the 43-year-old Kaufmann for beauty of tone, thrilling Italianate attack and his Lieder singer's ability to convey a sense of intimacy and privacy in what are perhaps the most personal and touching vocal works of his maturity.

Runnicles invariably adopts brisker tempos for Kaufmann than Thielemann does for Kollo, and they sound more naturally suited to the younger tenor's Italianate legato and deeper emotional exploration of the texts. Kollo's dry-sounding tenor, with the hint of an incipient beat, is taxed by Thielemann's slow-coach tendencies, while Runnicles is more supportive of his singer, and the orchestra, superbly recorded by Decca, plays quite wonderfully throughout for its current Generalmusikdirector.

In the operatic excerpts, of course, it is immersed in its bread-and-butter repertoire —even Rienzi, from which Kaufmann sings the title hero's 'Allmächt'ger Vater' as if it were a bel canto prayer, is in the Deutschen Oper's, though not Runnicles's, current repertoire.

Kaufmann returns to Lohengrin's Act 3 narration 'In fernem Land', which he recorded on the Abbado-conducted album, but here it is heard in an original, two-verse version, from which Wagner cut the second fearing it would bore audiences. In his interview Kaufmann refers to a 'beautiful' 1930s recording by the great German Lohengrin, Franz Volker, which I have never heard, but in the modern era he has the field to himself. Despite the claims of other contemporary Lohengrins, I can't believe anyone today — or for the last quarter of a century — has sung this music with the combination of musical poetry, range of colour and heroic climaxes that Kaufmann achieves here. This is golden-age Wagner singing by any standards and Kaufmann is a thoroughly modern artist, vividly 'present' rather than heard as if in a time warp.

In Siegmund's Sword monologue, his communicative delivery of the narration is capped by cries of 'Wälse', which seem to last for a small eternity: you have to go back to the young Vickers on the Leinsdorf/Vienna recording of Die Walküre — just re-released by Decca's Australian subdivision, Eloquence — to hear such virile, visceral singing of this dark, baritonal part and Kaufmann's German, of course, makes Vickers's sound inauthentic. Vickers probably had the larger voice, but Kaufmann never sounds stretched. After Stolzing's 'Preislied' in Decca's debut album ('Romantic Arias', conducted by Marco Armiliato, reviewed in February 2008) Kaufmann gives us 'Am stillen Herd' from Act 1 of Meistersinger — a performance of ideal tonal radiance and youthful glamour, but the real revelations are the Forest Murmurs sequence from Act 2 of Siegfried and Tannhäuser's Rome Narration, music he is singing for the first time here.

I doubt if Siegfried is on his immediate wish list for theatre debuts, but if and when he comes to sing it onstage, I hope he preserves the spellbinding freshness and naivety he conveys in the delinquent hero's tender imagining of what his mother might have looked like and his first encounter with the (not-yet-singing) Woodbird. I don't think I have ever heard this passage more beautifully or movingly sung, certainly not in the theatre and rarely on record.

Wagner would surely have loved to hear his words and music sung with such a refined sense of their indivisibility by a singer in complete command of his instrument and with such an imaginative sense of verbal and musical phraseology. The disc is a must-hear for dedicated Wagnerians for this superlative track alone (the Deutschen Oper's instrumental Waldvögel excel themselves here, as if trying to 'outsing' their tenor).

Tannhäuser is a role Kaufmann might also have demurred at singing complete onstage —Vickers famously withdrew from debuting the part at Covent Garden in the 1970s, though supposedly on moral rather than vocal grounds. He confesses in the interview that he has turned down all offers for the role, but intimates that his experience with the Rome Narration has made him change his mind. Perhaps he should save it until he has sung all of the French and Italian lyric roles he plans for the near future, but this astounding account of, arguably, the most taxing, extended monologue in Wagner's entire output after Tristan's Act 3 ravings, whets the appetite to experience his Tannhäuser live. He brings a Tristanesque agony and ecstasy to Wagner's words and music — running the gamut from an archaic, hymnic style in the description of the Pilgrim's appearance in Rome to an almost expressionist ranting in 'Da ekelte mich der holde Sang' ('The holy singing was repugnant to me') and a sardonic whining in his imitation of the Pope condemning him to eternal damnation. This is dramatic singing of the highest order, unmatched by any singer in a complete recording of Tannhäuser.

With this disc, Kaufmann asserts his position not only as the outstanding Wagner tenor of his day but one of the greatest of all time.

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