Seen and Heard International, 09/02/2017
Jim Pritchard
Wagner-Konzert, London, Barbican, 8. Februar 2017
Jonas Kaufmann is Not Yet Back to his Best Form in Wagner, But Pappano is
Having the night before seen the supposed ‘star’ of the evening somewhat outshone by those around her (Angela Gheorghiu in Adriana Lecouvreur) I arrived at The Kaufmann Residency and will end up suggesting the success of the evening was because of Antonio Pappano, the London Symphony Orchestra and the contributions of Karita Mattila and Eric Halfvarson rather than the ‘main man’ himself, Jonas Kaufmann.

When I first heard Pappano conduct Lohengrin at Bayreuth in 1999 I thought he would become one of the great Wagner conductors, but unfortunately his performances of that composer’s music during his long tenure at Covent Garden have paled in comparison to some of his other work there. Tonight, however, from the opening of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde in this all-Wagner programme to the exhilarating conclusion to Act I of Die Walküre, he confounded my expectations. There was much to admire in the lyrical, romantic warmth Pappano achieved from the splendid LSO. He marshalled his forces with a wonderful awareness of Wagner’s finely-wrought structures of scoring and motivic figurations. He was clearly acutely mindful of his tenor’s current vocal abilities, though mostly he never exploited dynamic contrast simply for easy effect. Under Pappano the volume of the orchestral peaks were purely an organic manifestation of the yearning and sexual passion inherent in much of Wagner’s music.

Some of those phrases – which once heard are never forgotten – are there in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, along with the composer’s concept of ‘endless melodies’ and his supposed heralding in of ‘modern music’ through the opening ‘Tristan’ chord. This slowly unwinding music was given a rendition that was refined, dramatically paced and dynamically fluid.

Jonas Kaufmann is continuing his return to singing after his well-advertised hiatus. He came back as Lohengrin in Paris (review here), but here made the serious misstep of attempting the Wesendonck Lieder so soon after his recovery. I reviewed his CD release (review here) and although I have heard him in the opera house on numerous occasions, this was the first time I have heard him in a concert since Edinburgh in 2006! These songs were originally published as ‘Five Poems for a Female Voice’; though perhaps there is no real reason a man cannot explore how suffering is intrinsic to life, angels, a hothouse or the dream-world of lovers. Indeed, Lauritz Melchior apparently recorded some of them.

With close links between two of the songs and Tristan und Isolde, the Wesendonck Lieder are strictly not so much Wagner as the work of Felix Mottl’s orchestrations of earlier piano or chamber versions. It would be interesting to hear from anyone at the back of the Barbican Hall balcony how much they heard of Kaufmann’s performance. At the present stage of his convalescence from his vocal cord trauma Kaufmann’s voice seems somewhat diminished; there is a sense of fragility in the highest floated top notes and he use his full-throated tone sparingly. His rendition had an intimacy that would have been better suited to the Wigmore Hall and with piano accompaniment. Wagnerian phrases seemed unduly short-changed, nevertheless ‘Schmerzen’ (Sorrows) was restless and impassioned and ‘Träume’ created a suitably dreamy atmosphere. There was an overreliance on soft head voice and – to be truthful – I have often heard some baritones sing in recital higher than Kaufmann was during these songs. More importantly, there is a sense of existentialism that listeners need to experience from great performances of this cycle: despite the valiant support of Pappano and the LSO, Kaufmann never approached the ‘out of body’ transcendence necessary.

After the interval everything was raised to another level. The first act of Die Walküre must be among the most oft-performed concert excisions from Wagner’s Ring. Pappano whipped up a storm right from the start and – perfectly paced at 67 minutes – conductor and orchestra settled to an urgent – though sublimely lyrical – reading capped by an incandescent account of the sensual love scene that brought the Barbican Hall audience to their feet. Sadly Jonas Kaufmann was a rather lightweight Siegmund. Admittedly, his burnished timbre and unforced lyricism was impeccable, but whilst his visceral cries of ‘Wälse!’ were brilliant, his ‘Winterstürme’ – which though admirably caressing and tender – had just too many crooning soft moments. He currently does not have the complete range of dynamics or projection to ride orchestral climaxes as a Wagnerian heroic tenor should. On the plus side, his diction was – as to be expected – quite unimpeachable.

The declamatory Karita Mattila is not a ‘natural’ Sieglinde yet was utterly compelling. Throughout she was neurotic-sounding and by the end of the act she sounded utterly unbalanced and on the verge of insanity. (For some reason she conjured up for me the memory of Gloria Swanson’s performance in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard film.) It was Eric Halfvarson who nearly stole the vocal honours from her with a superbly characterised Hunding. There was no mask of politeness here from his deep, baleful and sonorous bass voice, he was just a big bully harbouring possessive resentment.

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