New York Classical Review, Sun Oct 10, 2021
By David Wright
Liederabend, New York, Carnegiehall, 9. Oktober 2021
Jonas Kaufmann mixes rare Liszt and lieder favorites in Carnegie recital
Franz Liszt a neglected composer? In the realm of lieder recitals, he surely is.
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch redressed that injustice Saturday night in Carnegie Hall, leading off their program with nine vivid selections from Liszt’s catalogue of over 80 songs.

They then shifted gears from the unjustly ignored to the justly famous, treating the audience to their deeply expressive take on the greatest vocal hits of Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Richard Strauss, among others.

In brief remarks from the stage, Kaufmann explained the bifurcated program as the result of “two projects” he and Deutsch had been working on during the pandemic shutdown, including their recent recording of Liszt lieder and (apparently) making definitive versions of the classic songs every voice student eventually tackles.

In an evening that emphasized poetic inflection over vocal heroics, the tenor explored shades of piano and pianissimo that blended bewitchingly with the pianist’s artful voicing and coloration. The audience seemed to hold its breath at their diminuendos.

That said, the piano’s role in these works sounded needlessly soft-pedaled for most of the evening. Although Liszt’s piano parts mostly avoided his grand virtuoso style, the composer was at the piano in Weimar when these songs were introduced, and it’s hard to imagine him taking as far a back seat to the singer as Deutsch did on Saturday.

Although singer and pianist received scrupulously equal billing in Carnegie’s advertising and the printed program, their body language onstage told a different story, that of Big Star and humble accompanist. In their music-making, one missed the dialogue of equals, the robust scene-setting of piano introductions and codas, and the boost that an energetic piano crescendo can give a vocalist of Kaufmann’s stature.

With that reservation, one could thoroughly enjoy becoming acquainted with such Liszt gems as his two settings of texts by Heine, “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder” and “Im Rhom, im schönen Strome,” the first a bracingly bitter love song, the second a cheerful ripple through a text better known today as a harsh episode in Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

Speaking of contrasting settings, Liszt himself made two different versions of Goethe’s “Freudvoll und leidvoll.” As Saturday’s performances made clear, one busy setting took its cue from Freude (joy) and the other, more reflective one from Leid (sorrow).

The melody of “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst” was so memorable that Liszt’s arrangement of it for piano solo later became one of his greatest hits, Liebestraum No. 3.

Liszt set Goethe’s narrative poem of a king’s deathless love, “Es war ein König in Thule,” in ballad style. Kaufmann told the tale dramatically as Deutsch sounded the regal motive in the piano.

The floating harmonies and bell effects of Liszt’s late song “Ihr Glocken von Marling,” composed in 1874, seemed to anticipate Debussy. Kaufmann’s tender phrasing and Deutsch’s delicate coda sparked spontaneous applause.

Liszt couldn’t resist some Hungarian rhapsodizing in his genre portrait of “Die drei Zigeuner” (The three Roma, or “gypsies”). Deutsch executed the piano flourishes dutifully as Kaufmann celebrated the characters’ devil-may-care attitude toward life’s hardships.

The chromatic chord progression that opens “Die Loreley,” described by Liszt’s biographer Alan Walker as “stolen from the future of music,” anticipated Wagner’s Tristan by a decade. On Saturday, the tale of siren song and shipwreck rippled and crashed and dwindled, closing the program’s Liszt section on a breathtaking pianissimo. Enthusiastic applause ushered the performers offstage for the only pause in this 75-minute, intermissionless program.

They returned on a lighthearted note with Schubert’s rollicking “Der Musensohn,” and found the gentle humor in Mozart’s mock-tragic “Das Veilchen.” Kaufmann’s ease of intonation and phrasing carried over into a smooth, cheerful version of Schumann’s “Widmung.”

The singer’s soft, non-vibrato tone cast a nocturnal hush over Schubert’s “Wanderers Nachtlied,” while the piano’s gently bouncing rhythm propped up the nostalgic scene in Dvořák’s “Als die alte Mutter.” The rocking piano and long diminuendo of Brahms’s “Wiegenlied,” Op. 49, No. 4, seemed sure to waft any child into dreamland.

Deep piano bass and chords set the scene for Carl Bohm’s “Still wie die Nacht,” billed as the composer’s Op. 326, No. 27. (And you thought Liszt was prolific!)

In another novelty, “In mir klingt ein Lied,” the 20th-century Viennese critic and composer Alois Melichar fitted his own love poem to an abridged version of Chopin’s Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3. Singer and pianist made strong cases for both of these rarities.

They also brought a surge of passion to more familiar items, Tchaikovsky’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” and Strauss’s “Zueignung,” although a bigger piano challenge in the latter’s climax would have been welcome.

Zemlinsky’s “Selige Stunde” stepped along agreeably to a steady piano beat, setting the stage for the program to close on perhaps its high point of collaborative musicianship, the balanced and finely woven performances of Wolf’s “Verborgenheit” and Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden.”

The latter’s evanescent close was followed by a roar of applause, which eventually sparked six encores: Schumann’s rapt “Mondnacht,” Schubert’s jaunty “Die Forelle,” Wagner’s expressive “Träume” from Wesendonck Lieder, and three by Strauss: “Nichts,” “Morgen,” and, for a grand vocal sendoff, “Cäcilie.”

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