Financial Times, 22.5.2018
Richard Fairman
Konzert, 19. Mai 2018, London, Barbican Hall
Jonas Kaufmann, Barbican, London — alive with meaning
Nothing was shirked in the tenor’s performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs
Some people said it could not be done. Others complained that they could not see the point of trying it in the first place.

When Jonas Kaufmann announced that he was going to sing Strauss’s Four Last Songs, he caused a controversy, while simultaneously stoking a high degree of expectation. The event was originally scheduled as the last concert of Kaufmann’s residency at the Barbican last year, but that was cancelled, leaving doubt as to whether it would ever happen. At the weekend the rescheduled date finally came round.

At a time when gender-neutral casting is becoming commonplace in the theatre — a female Hamlet is currently treading the boards at the Globe — why does it matter? After all, female singers have claimed Schubert’s Winterreise since the 1980s, when Brigitte Fassbaender and Christa Ludwig made it their own.

The difference is that the Strauss songs are written in such a way as to allow the right kind of soprano to soar limpidly through the air. That does not sit so well for a man. When Kaufmann did use a half voice to shape long, relaxed lines, as in the second song, he failed to project strongly enough and was lost under the orchestra. His strengths showed most in the outer songs, where he sang out fully, creating a strong, dark atmosphere. Overall, nothing was shirked, either the most expansive lines or the highest notes, and it was a pleasure to hear a performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in which the poetry was alive with meaning.

He had warmed up on an earlier group of four Strauss songs. “Ruhe, meine Seele!” sounded even more Wagnerian than usual (Kaufmann has recently essayed the part of Tristan for the first time) and “Befreit”, surely Strauss’s greatest song, was broadly phrased, the words deeply felt. He generously added “Morgen” as a hushed encore at the end of the evening.

Conductor Jochen Rieder and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provided the support on this exploratory journey. In between Kaufmann’s appearances, they played Korngold’s “Schauspiel” Overture and Elgar’s In the South, two works as Sraussian in their cut and flamboyant use of the orchestra as the master himself.

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