The Guardian, 9 February 2017
Tim Ashley
Wagner-Konzert, London, Barbican, 8. Februar 2017
Kaufmann/LSO/Pappano – magnificent, lyrical Wagner
Jonas Kaufmann and Karita Mattila often mesmerised in this recital of songs and excerpts, in which Eric Halfvarson made a tremendous Hunding
Given the centrality of Wagner to his repertory, it’s surprising that Jonas Kaufmann has sung so little of his music in the UK. Fragments and scenes have formed part of his recital programmes over the years, but the only role he has as yet given us complete is Walther in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at a single concert performance in Edinburgh in 2006. The second instalment of his Barbican residency, a Wagner evening with the London Symphony Orchestra and Antonio Pappano, went some way to restoring the balance.

Prefaced by the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, he sang the Wesendonck Lieder before playing Siegmund in Act I of Die Walküre, for which he was joined by Karita Mattila as Sieglinde and Eric Halfvarson as Hunding. Some might question his decision to tackle the Wesendonck Lieder in the first place, given that Wagner specified a female voice, and his performance, though beautiful, had a studied quality that made it less than ideal.

Kaufmann’s voice is in fine shape, remarkably so given that last year he was forced to cancel engagements after suffering a burst blood vessel on his vocal chords, which might have caused irreparable damage. With the LSO sounding languidly opulent for Pappano, he gave us a carefully modulated display of soft singing, the words finely pointed, the dynamics immaculately shaded. Only at the climax of Stehe Still and in Schmerzen did he let the voice out fully and we heard that remarkable bronze ring in the tone. The effect was striking, but it all felt self-consciously calculated, lacking the immediacy we associate with his singing at its best.

In Walküre, however, he was magnificent, though he and Mattila embody very different approaches to Wagner, and there were stylistic tensions in their portrait of the tragic couple who discover their desire for one another before realising they are brother and sister. Kaufmann’s expansive, lyrical way with Wagner is reminiscent of interwar tenors such as Lauritz Melchior or René Maison. Power blends with refinement: lines unfurl with an almost bel canto grace. He was at his most beautiful in Winterstürme. The great cries of “Wälse! Wälse!”, gloriously projected, seemed to go on for ever.

Mattila, in contrast, is closer to the immersive, expressionist style of postwar singers such as Leonie Rysanek. Her identification with the character is almost frighteningly complete. She sings with a rapture that borders on recklessness. Both approaches are perfectly valid, and together she and Kaufmann were often mesmerising. But we were also occasionally aware of disparities: in the section of the love duet in which each recognises their own voice in that of the other, the emotional closeness between them was momentarily fractured. Halfvarson, meanwhile, made a tremendous impression as the most brutal Hunding imaginable. Pappano’s Wagner, sometimes lingering in the moment rather than steadily pressing on, can divide opinion. But the first scenes here glowed with a rich sensuality, and the climax of the love duet was thrilling in the extreme.

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