Seen and Heard International, 06/02/2017
Robert Beattie
Liederabend, London, Barbican, 4. Februar 2017
Jonas Kaufmann Begins His Barbican Residency on Top Form
This was the first of three concerts featuring Jonas Kaufmann at the Barbican and a welcome return to the stage for the great German tenor. Kaufmann chatted amicably to the audience at the start of the concert explaining that he had decided to use a prompt sheet as it was his first concert after a long break. With his likeable, engaging manner and Byronic good looks, he already had the audience in the palm of his hand without singing a single note.

Every so often one hears an exceptional performance of a work that does not often feature on concert programmes and you come away with a greatly enhanced view of it and thinking it needs to be performed much more often. This was the case with Schumann’s Kerner Lieder after listening to this astonishing performance by Kaufmann and Deutsch. Schumann wrote the set in 1840 – his great year of song – and he described it as song sequence rather than a song cycle. The dark timbre and rich baritonal colouring of the lower register of Kaufmann’s voice seemed to lend itself to this music. The early songs were simple and direct and there was a clear focus on giving meaning to Kerner’s poetry in the best tradition of lieder singing. There were some gorgeous colour changes from Kaufmann in ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ while Deutsch captured Schumann’s mercurial whimsy to perfection in ‘Erstes Grün’. ‘Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend’ was heartfelt and full of brooding nostalgia while ‘Wanderung’ with its lilt and rhythmic bounce was an absolute delight. Deutsch produced some glowing chromatic chords and evocative phrases in ‘Stille Liebe’ while Kaufmann’s vocal line tripped along with effortless lyricism. In ‘Stille Tränen’ Kaufmann’s operatic credentials were on display as his virile voice with its burnished tone filled the hall. This was awe inspiring singing showing that the great tenor is back at the peak of his powers. Kaufmann, however, saved the best to last in a profoundly moving performance of ‘Alte Laute’. This was pianissimo singing of the highest order with Kaufmann keeping the vocal line just about audible while projecting every word clearly to the back of the hall.

We moved from German Romanticism to Gallic sensuality with a collection of songs by Henri Duparc. Once again the singing and playing were of the highest order and there was much to admire in these performances. In ‘L’invitation au voyage’ Kaufmann moved seamlessly from sensual allure to red blooded passion while Deutsch produced a glittering array of impressionistic textures and sonorities. There is a very rarefied atmosphere and sense of mystery which one hears in the great performances of this song. I slightly missed that here but it was a very fine performance nonetheless. There were subtle and finely graded atmospheric shifts in ‘Phidylé’ while the vocal line blossomed out beautifully in the final stanza. Kaufmann gave us seamless legato singing in ‘Chanson triste’ investing the vocal line with supreme lyricism against Deutsch’s rippling accompaniment. The opening of ‘La vie antérieure’ had a timeless quality while the central section had a naked eroticism which was heightened by Kaufmann’s extraordinary control of dynamics. The singing and playing were exceptionally fine although I wondered if there was scope to blend a little more of Duparc’s very refined sensibility and shimmering sensuality into their performance.

The recital ended with a performance of Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo which date from the early years of the Second World War when Britten was in exile in the USA. Michelangelo wrote these overtly homoerotic sonnets for the Italian aristocrat, Tommaso dei Cavalieri and the historical and literary context no doubt inspired Britten to use them as a vehicle to express his own desires for Peter Pears. I do not particularly associate Kaufmann with Britten’s music but he and Deutsch gave an absolutely barnstorming account of this work. Deutsch opened with trumpet fanfares in Sonetto XVI while Kaufmann gave us some charged, virile singing in the high bel canto vocal line. Sonetto XXX was a highly charged expression of repressed desire and the final words had a spectral, haunting quality (there was a strong resonance of Pears’ performance here). In Sonetto XXXII Deutsch’s chattering accompaniment complemented perfectly the urgency and anguish of Kaufmann’s vocal line. Deutsch invested the opening notes of the final sonnet (Sonetto XXIV) with gravity and pathos before Kaufmann entered with some electrifying a cappella singing. His distillation of love, desire and tenderness was very moving and a superb way to end a memorable evening. I hope there will be more opportunities to hear Kaufmann singing Britten in future – it would be great to see him in one of the operas.

Kaufmann and Deutsch were greeted with ecstatic applause and numerous members of the audience presented Kaufmann with bouquets. The duo performed ‘Nichts’ by Richard Strauss as an encore. Overall, this was an awe inspiring evening of superlative music making and it’s good to see the wonderful Jonas Kaufmann gracing our concert platforms once again.

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