The Spectator, 11 November 2010
Michael Tanner
Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, London, Wigmore Hall, 31 October 2010

Jonas Kaufmann’s ascent to the position of the leading German lyric-dramatic tenor has been surprisingly gradual. I first saw him in Edinburgh in 2001, giving a Lieder recital in the Queen’s Hall, and was immediately astonished that I hadn’t heard of him before. For the next few years, I heard him there in more recitals, and in concert performances of Der Freischütz, Capriccio and culminating as Walther in Die Meistersinger in 2006.

With Kaufmann there is never any risk of overdramatisation, yet he is essentially a dramatic artist, and from the first note of Müllerin he was the young miller, even to the extent of sounding slightly tentative about embarking on his wandering, while extolling it. This great cycle has the singer — and the accompanist, here Kaufmann’s regular partner Helmut Deutsch — moving between two poles: the restlessness of the journey into life and love, and the hypnotic pull of the stream, itself moving but enticing the wanderer to immerse himself in it and finally to drown himself, a kind of proto-Isolde, though more physical and less metaphysical.

At 40, Kaufmann evidently feels that his days of singing this cycle are numbered, but at present he still brings a miraculously youthful tone to it, whether being briefly exultant in possessing the fair maid, raging against the intrusive green huntsman, or abandoning himself to easeful death: the last is most impressive of all. Kaufmann sings in the softest of head voices, risking inaudibility, but casting a spell the like of which I haven’t encountered in the concert hall or opera house for a very long time. It is a testimony to the seriousness with which he and Deutsch take their art that there were so many telling small differences between this performance and their CD of the same work, released earlier this year.


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