Seen and Heard International, February 24, 2014
David Allen
Recital: Carnegie Hall, 20. Februar 2014
Jonas Kaufmann: Celebrity Matched by Talent
This wasn’t a concert. It was the Second Coming. Well the first, really: Jonas Kaufmann’s surprisingly belated Carnegie Hall debut. He ended it with six encores, and had almost to be dragged off stage by his partner Helmut Deutsch, as he waved behind him and blew kisses over his shoulder. After his fourth encore, Strauss’s ‘Cäcilie,’ had drawn howls of approval, he bowed so low that he ended up supplicating himself on one knee.

A list of what Kaufmann did wonderfully during this recital would be long and, for me at least, embarrassing. In his case, as so rarely in our present climate, the celebrity is matched by talent that at times becomes unfathomable. The two combined make it almost impossible not to collapse into fan-boy adoration. And I’m not alone in this: in all my time in concert halls, I have never heard waves of noise from an audience like these.

The precision of Kaufmann’s voice, matched with such power, still shocks even if we are now used to it. Yet what lingers in the memory from this concert was the hush of the quietest moments, the ways in which Kaufmann earnestly infused each of these songs with sincerity, and the ability he has of inflecting each word—when he chooses—with seemingly contradictory emotions.

In the Schumann songs that made up the first half, Kaufmann drew out the irony and sorrow that lie at the heart of both the Zwölf Gedichte and especially, the Dichterliebe, without ever overdoing it. Take ‘Erstes Grün,’ from the first set, full of the hopes of spring and yet, by the end, tinged already with pain. Or the half-toned, wispy beginning of ‘Stille Tränen,’ growing and darkening as Kaufmann told of the dreamt sorrows of lovers—necessary, noble, and inevitable.

This Dichterliebe, too, was uncommonly dignified, given in a great arc from Kaufmann and Deutsch. It questioned in ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,’ and was utterly resolved by the piano postlude to a resigned ‘Die alten bösen Lieder.’ Details drew shudders: when, in ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’,’ Kaufmann sang ‘ich liebe dich!’ one knew exactly how bitterly he had wept about it. There was a narrative zest—reflective and even dismissive—to the recitation of a classic love story in ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen,’ and thereafter a slow, painful working out, rightly as much pianistic as sung.

Meatier fare followed the intermission. Kaufmann makes a simple and persuasive case for allowing male voices sing the Wesendonck Lieder: there is nothing in the text, not a single pronoun, that makes it untenable. The real interest, of course, is that Wagner used these songs as studies for Tristan und Isolde, and Kaufmann, presumably, is using them as preparation for Tristan. If it’s hard to take Mathilde Wesendonck’s texts too seriously, Wagner’s rapt music seems even more radical when heard in his original piano score. In ‘Im Treibhaus,’ the song that looks forward to the torture of Tristan’s third act in harmony if not in its slight lack of flow, Deutsch chillingly brought out the discord and impossibility of Mathilde’s love for Richard. And in ‘Träume,’ which looks to the hidden passion of Tristan’s second act, it was Kaufmann who drew out the song’s veiled quality, verbs like ‘küßt’ disappearing in a puff.

Liszt’s Petrarch sonnets are considerably more vivacious, more aria-like, and they were the highlight among highlights of this recital, not least because Deutsch is a particularly fine Lisztian. Again Kaufmann’s power to shape words told. Kaufmann’s Italian is just as good as his German, as these long, swooning lines amply showed. Take the line ‘Ed ho in odio me stesso, ed amo altrui’ in ‘Pace non trovo’ (‘I hate myself, but love another’), in which one really felt the destructive side of love, and then its power to convince.

Four Strauss songs made up two-thirds of the encores. Two, ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ and ‘Cäcilie,’ came from the great Op.27 set, although, alas, there was to be no ‘Morgen!’ Flattening power was the feature of ‘Breit über mein Haupt,’ seemingly delivered in a single breath, and the complete opposite characterised ‘Freundliche Vision,’ which began pianissimo and slowly quietened, drawing one in as bliss overwhelmed its protagonist. Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht,’ from the Liederkreis, was the graceful, levitating fifth. The last was a deliciously cheeky ‘Gern hab’ ich die Frau’n geküßt,’ taken from Léhar’s Paganini. ‘Girls, were made to love and kiss,’ Kaufmann sang in a pretty impressive Dean Martin impression, ‘and who am I to interfere with this?’ Who, indeed?

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