Seen an Heard International, January 5, 2015
Mark Berry
Liederabend, Wigmore Hall, London, 4. Januar 2015
Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch: An Outstanding Partnership
Although 2015 has only just begun, it is difficult to imagine that there will prove a more difficult musical ticket to acquire than one for Jonas Kaufmann’s Wigmore Hall recital. Having abandoned all hope, I was extremely fortunate to snap up a return the day beforehand. (Many thanks, far from incidentally, to the ever-helpful Wigmore Hall in that respect!) It is equally difficult to imagine that anyone will have attended the recital and been disappointed – unless, that is, he or she, went along with that intent, and even then I think it would have been difficult to follow through that intent. Whilst I found the second half still more impressive than the first, any reservations I might have held were far from earth-shattering.

One might have been the programming of the first half itself. It seemed a pity only to have five of Schumann’s Kerner Lieder, and I wondered whether some more Liszt, or perhaps even some Schubert or Strauss, might have complemented the other songs better. But I was probably just being ungrateful and/or greedy, since there was much to enjoy on the programme’s own terms. Kaufmann crooned a little too often for my taste here, especially in no.9, ‘Frage’. Even there, however, his imploring rendition exploited most of what is best about a more ‘operatic’ approach to Lieder-singing. (A great deal of nonsense is spoken about the relationship between song and opera, largely by self-appointed guardians of the purity of the ‘Lied’. The relationship is in fact, complex, concerning both work and performance, and different artists will quite rightly bring different strengths to their interpretations.) The dark, impetuous opening of ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’ set up welcome, necessary contrast in a properly innig ‘Erstes Grün’, leaving this listener at least with a lump in his throat fit to recall first or at least early love. ‘Wanderung’ seemed to unite both tendencies, suggesting cannier programming than I had first allowed. And the final ‘Stille Tränen’ proved ‘operatic’ in the best, blazing sense, Helmut Deutsch’s well-nigh orchestral ‘accompaniment’ equally crucial here. Indeed, throughout I was often just as impressed by Deutsch’s contribution, especially in this first half, in which he proved himself, as if proof were needed, a Schumann player of true distinction. Moreover, the two performers not only complemented each other but supported and incited each other in a way that only the greatest partnerships can.

Dichterliebe followed. ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ was euphoniously expectant to a degree. Here, and indeed throughout the cycle, Deutsch’s piano voicing was what one might expect from a solo pianist turned one-night collaborator; works such as the Arabeske, Faschingsschwank aus Wien, and so on often coming to mind. (It would, I suspect, be wonderful to hear him in some of the solo works.) The quickness, in more than one sense, of the implied heartbeat in ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ was something no listener could ignore. Subtle artistry such as Kaufmann’s lingering, enough but not too much, on ‘Ich liebe dich’ in the following ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’’ emphasised a Romantic longing that seemed precisely Schumann’s own. There was not so much in the way of irony, but that is a characteristic of Schumann’s response to Heine’s far more ironic verse, and a climax such as that to ‘Ich grolle nicht’ brought its own rewards, such as cannot be found in ‘straight’ Heine. (One small(-ish) gripe whilst speaking of the verse: Richard Stokes’s programme notes, whilst interesting and informative upon Heine, had little to say concerning Schumann’s setting of Heine’s verse; moreover, they had almost nothing at all to say on Wagner’s or Liszt’s music.)

Under Deutsch’s fingers, one truly heard the wedding band in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’; Mahler seemed briefly to beckon. ‘Aus alten Märchen’ offered a perfect instance of the two musicians on stage collaborating to provide something greater than the sum of its parts, the sense of German fairytale delight, its roots perhaps in Weber as much as in the Brothers Grimm, quite a relief for one song at least. Of course, ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ was still to come. Resolute to begin with, the music seemed to sink in performance with the coffin of Heine’s text. Schumann’s – and Deutsch’s – Bachian postlude, however, offered magic that somehow went ‘beyond’, in any number of ways.

It is an unusual thing indeed to hear a man sing the Wesendonck Lieder, though I am not entirely sure why, especially in the case of the original, piano version. Not once during this performance, following the interval, did it seem odd, or did I even reflect that this was not as it ‘should’ or at least would usually be. Kaufmann indeed seemed just right for Wagner’s style, the line of the opening ‘Der Engel’ immediately announcing its kinship with the composer’s operas (and, if one must draw the distinction, his music-dramas too). Deutsch too, and I do not mean this as a faint compliment, captured Wagner’s piano style very well, wittingly or otherwise offering connections with, for instance, the Sonata in A-flat major, also, far from coincidentally, written with Mathilde Wesendonck in mind. (It is a far better piece than its allegedly cultured despisers would have you believe.) ‘Stehe still!’ intensified the impression of a singer every inch a Siegmund. The clarity and purpose of ‘Im Treibhaus’- Deutsch’s achievement at least as much as Kaufmann’s – could not but put to shame the aimless meanderings of Antonio Pappano’s latest attempt at Wagner conducting at Covent Garden, and heightened both the regret that we never hear Kaufmann there in German repertoire and also the longing we should feel to hear him as Tristan. The words ‘Schweigens Dunkel’ suggested a darkness, again without undue exaggeration, that was truly musical – which is to say, according to Wagner’s world-view of the time, truly metaphysical. Deutsch’s piano part towards the song’s close rightly hinted at Schoenberg. ‘Schmerzen’ offered another experience ‘after “Winterstürme”’, preparing the way for a ‘Träume’ full of erotic expectation and fulfilment.

Finally, perhaps the greatest performance of the evening: Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets, Kaufmann’s mix of the Germanic and the Italianate perfectly complementing Liszt’s own. Occasionally, I might have liked something a little more assertive here from Deutsch, but perhaps he was ensuring that the greatest of all pianist-composers did not unduly favour his own instrument. Kaufmann’s long ‘operatic’ line was superlatively fitted to Liszt’s writing. No.47, ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno’ benefited not only from that, but also from such splendid attention to detail as Kaufmann’s crescendo on the second syllable of ‘Benedette [le voci tante]’, itself echoed in the general crescendo of that third stanza so far as the end of its third line: the calling of Laura’s name vividly portrayed, re-enacted, memorialised. The final stanza simply sent shivers down the spine. ‘Pace non trovo’ amply justified a relatively swift tempo – probably more suited to vocal than solo piano performance. When Kaufmann sang of embracing the whole world (‘tutto ’l mondo abbraccio’) one genuinely believed it to be a possibility. The range of colours employed, even on a single word, such as ‘impaccio’, had almost to be heard to be believed. Deutsch again had one relish the extraordinary piano writing, which for all the unrecognised virtues of Wagner’s, effortlessly surpasses his. ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ proved, fittingly, the most seductive of all, the sweetness of the final stanza – ‘Tanta dolcezza avea pien l’aer e ’l vento’ and all – an object lesson in Romantic style and aptness of conclusion.

There remained a rapt Schumann ‘Mondnacht’. Too beautiful? I wondered at the time, but such puritanism was readily banished when I found it lingering in my mind’s ear the following morning.

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