The New Yorker, October 25, 2021
By Alex Ross
Liederabend, New York, Carnegiehall, 9. Oktober 2021
Jonas Kaufmann’s Gilded Voice
A recital at Carnegie Hall confirms the tenor’s talent but leaves questions about the depth of his artistry.
The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who recently brought his gold-bronze voice to Carnegie Hall, may be the most bankable male star in opera today. His appearances all but guarantee a full house. Tough-minded critics exit the venue with elated grins. His not infrequent cancellations traumatize the front offices of leading institutions. With his wavy hair and wide cheekbones, he cuts a plausible profile as a Puccinian lover or a Wagnerian hero. In German-speaking lands, he is a part-time pop idol with best-selling crossover records to his credit, including a Christmas album—“It’s Christmas!”—that includes traditional carols alongside lightly accented versions of “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

Every merry crowd must have at least one unsmiling soul, and in this case the role falls to me. There is no denying the fundamental splendor of Kaufmann’s sound: the baritonal strength of his lower register, the clean strike of his high notes, the tender shimmer of his mezza voce. All the pitches are in place, laced together in a luxurious legato. Nonetheless, to take a line from Bertolt Brecht, something is lacking. Particularly in recent years, Kaufmann has exuded a generalized glamour that seems disconnected from the music at hand. This is not a pressing issue in “Jingle Bells,” but in songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mahler, and Strauss—the heart of Kaufmann’s recital at Carnegie—it becomes a minor crisis.

The smoothed-over nature of Kaufmann’s voice is a direct result of his training, and from a technical standpoint it’s hard to argue with the choices he has made. In a 2011 interview, he explained that a vocal coach had helped him develop his legato line, in part by evening out vowels and softening consonants. “Every overpronounced consonant stops the flow of air, and that’s not good,” Kaufmann said. This approach gives him a particular authority in Italian and French repertory, where a liquid line is a necessity. In his native language, his diction is never anything but clear, yet the words don’t crystallize in the air as they do in the work of Christoph Prégardien and Christian Gerhaher, to name two eminent Lieder interpreters. In a curious way, Kaufmann could be mistaken for a Romance-language singer who speaks perfect German.

Despite his dashing, mildly rakish air, Kaufmann is emphatically not a risk-taker. I often have the sense that he is husbanding his resources, protecting the glittering hoard of his voice. His performance in Massenet’s “Werther,” at the Met, in 2014, was emblematic: the ur-Romantic tragic hero came across as elegant, contained, emotionally recessed. Attempts at Wagner’s Tristan have predictably fallen short of the deranged passion that the part requires. To be sure, Kaufmann sets vocal standards that few can match. Nothing is remotely below par. Yet there’s something solipsistic about his career: he rarely disappears into a role.

The Carnegie program, for which the pianist Helmut Deutsch provided accompaniment, drew on two recent albums, both on the Sony label: “Selige Stunde,” a recital ranging from Mozart to Alexander Zemlinsky, and “Freudvoll und Leidvoll,” devoted to songs by Liszt. The latter is one of Kaufmann’s best efforts to date, giving welcome attention to a neglected body of work. Lisztian innovation flares up all over, whether in the questing, “Tristan”-like introduction to “Loreley”—composed years before Wagner wrote his opera—or in the proto-Debussyan harmonies of “Ihr Glocken von Marling.” Kaufmann emphasizes the melodic backbone of this music, leaving no question that Liszt could have been a major opera composer had he set his mind to it.

The “Selige Stunde” album—the title, taken from a song by Zemlinsky, translates as “Blessed Hour”—is a grab bag of famous Lieder, mostly of a contemplative nature. The lineup includes Schubert’s “Wandrers Nachtlied II,” Schumann’s “Mondnacht,” Brahms’s “Wiegenlied,” and Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” all of which Kaufmann brought to Carnegie. Handsomely delivered as they are, these songs should connote something more than a cozy respite from the world’s cares. “Mondnacht” is an exercise in immaculate stillness, but there is something immensely eerie in the way its vocal line hovers over steady sixteenth-note quavers. Kaufmann’s handling of the stepwise rising line borders on crooning, to the point that Schumann’s moonbeams seem a product of studio lighting.

As for the Mahler, there should be some sort of mandate against sentimentalized versions of this apocalyptically gorgeous song, which the likes of Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson turned into a national anthem for solitary souls. “I am lost to the world,” the text reads. “It may very well believe that I am dead.” Mahler’s writing of an extended melisma on the word “dead” invites some intervention on the part of the singer—a ghostly timbre, an ironic tinge. Kaufmann warbles his way through the phrase as if it were just another lovely string of notes. He sounds not so much lost to the world as pleasantly distracted. Deutsch, graceful but deferential, does little to push Kaufmann toward a deeper interpretation.

At Carnegie, the tenor rode waves of applause through no fewer than six encores, alternating lyrical purring with displays of heroic swagger. He ended with Strauss’s “Cäcilie,” though he stopped momentarily to berate an audience member who was recording a video. “I do everything for you,” he barked. “But please respect the rules and don’t film.” If Kaufmann were the kind of singer who really did give everything he had—a go-for-broke artist like Patti LuPone, who issues similar reprimands on Broadway—I would have admired the sentiment. In this case, though, it had more the flavor of a celebrity pout. And it is that scrim of celebrity which seems to have sealed off Kaufmann’s enormous talent and limited its expressive potential.

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