Opera News, July 2014
Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch: "SCHUBERT: Winterreise" - Editor's Choice
This is a gem of a performance, but one that bucks current trends. The bleak nature of Schubert's Winterreise,with two-thirds of its songs in minor keys, is often taken as an invitation to probe, analyze and even diagnose its protagonist. In the final song, "Der Leiermann" (The Hurdy-gurdy Man), the traveler, totally undone, will wind up identifying with the village idiot, a fate treated so indelibly by Schubert that it colors the whole cycle. Understandably, many singers are apt to seek clues to that decline earlier, even in the very first songs, and to keep emphasizing eccentricity, instability and other predictive symptoms.

That is not Jonas Kaufmann's approach. Here, each step downward feels like an unexpected blow. His traveler resists, protests and struggles, at higher volume than many others. The performance maintains an urgent pulse throughout, amid rich rubato, with rock-solid support from veteran accompanist Helmut Deutsch. The singer's unusual warmth maintains tension between past and present: his timbre suggests a robust, somewhat naïve young man who's new to morbid reflection.

Kaufmann's singing has beauty of line and tone, whether at intimate mezza voce or full-blooded Wagnerian level. The tenor sounds more secure and more flexible than in his 2010 recording of Die Schöne Müllerin with Deutsch for Decca. Kaufmann manages to smooth his vocal registers and misses not a note in the dizzying "Die Wetterfahne" or the rushing descending lines in "Letzte Hoffnung." He keeps the texts prominent and poetic, with some vivid word-painting ("wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!"), while responding to the musical shape and diverse rhythms of the songs.

Yet, for all the sensitivity and variety he commands, Kaufmann sometimes falls into rigid patterns. His treatment of dynamics favors doggedly alternating extremes. In one place, that model is actually demanded by Schubert; the composer's markings in the tenth song, "Rast," call for a series of alternations between leise (soft) and stark (loud). These artists proceed to apply that seesaw template a little indiscriminately elsewhere, as if soft music always needed an immediate contrasting foil; Kaufmann also likes to end loud. Even the eerie obsessive exercises, such as "Auf dem Flusse," "Der greise Kopf" and "Die Krähe," after fine, minute treatment, end in inappropriate explosions.

Nevertheless, the device has a strategic narrative impact. Later in the performance, the contrasts subside, and a quieter mode starts to prevail, signaling a critical turning point at the seventeenth song, "Im Dorfe." Here, Kaufmann encompasses states — exhaustion, isolation, rejection, bemusement, distance, pained resignation — of such range and subtlety as to redeem anything that seemed too mechanical before. In fact, his resistance has aptly prepared the way, serving to dramatize this surrender to quiet, devastating insight.

But at the end, in the tenor's chilling final song, a trace of the leise/stark habit suddenly intrudes. Where most versions fade out mysteriously, his very last notes trigger a quick vocal flare-up at a real forte. It's daring but somehow not inappropriate to this traveler, whose vehement protests all have the same futility.

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