Operawire, Nov 1, 2021
By Lois Silverstein
Liederabend, Berkeley, 25. Oktober 2021
Jonas Kaufmann & Helmut Deutsch in Recital
Famed Tenor Delivers a Riveting Musical Feast
How can we wrap up a drop of joy? A shower? That’s what it was in Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Sunday, Oct. 24th as Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch brought both, and more. As soon as the melodies of Franz Liszt wafted over the hall, anxiety, doubt and curiosity melted away, and we were moored in magic. Kaufmann was overall in excellent form, and Helmut Deutsch as well, bringing the piano into its own, note by note.

It was “wunderschön,” a miracle, the whole way through.

Pleading for Restraint

Kaufmann began his performance with an eloquent plea, in fluent English, for clapping restraints. He explained how the preparation he and Deutsch made, for the lieder recital, and while it was not narrative, it followed a carefully designed aesthetic plan. To applaud after each song could easily disrupt the flow of this. “Could you please restrain yourselves as far as possible?” he asked cordially. He was an artist, afterall, I thought, despite his popularity, and despite critics casting some aspersion at him for a similar request, it seemed apt. And since this was Berkeley, and the audience admired as well as respected such a request, we all settled back to aesthetic restraint and respectful silence.

Throughout the concert, despite the degree and quality of emotion unfolding through the music, restraint complied. This did not constrict the building of feeling or beauty. It was not amazing but satisfying that beauty and caring for art overrode wild appreciation. His brief words added another dimension of welcome to the already primed crowd.

The body of the concert, two parts separated by a brief pause, not an intermission, focused on Liszt lieder from Kaufmann and Deutsch’s latest album, “Freudvoll und Leidvoll,” was followed by an array of well-chosen lieder from the larger lieder repertoire – Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, and Wolf, among others. It was both moving and thoughtful. Instead of focusing on Kaufmann’s star power, or opera arias, we listened, absorbed and traveled into what Kaufmann called a “fantasy world” created by the musicians and poets. It was a full plate, too, 22 lied in total, in all, and all aspects of love, where love and loss, longing and losing, acceptance and despair, ruled. Of this, he was more than master, and performer.

Opening with Liszt’s “Vergiftet sind mein Lieder,” Kaufmann threw down the gauntlet: the lover in anger and disappointment at his beloved, and yet with a plea: “Und dich, Geliebte mein.” The expansive comparison of love and anger was a mark of many of the poems Liszt chose to set to music, in the tradition of Romantic poets of the time.

Immediately on its heels, the plaintive “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” allowed Kaufmann’s more lyrical sound to emerge. On the upper notes, there was definite strain, but he overcame the harshness and regained ease in the pianissimo conclusion. Again, the metaphor of an elaborate comparison of his beloved to the eyes of the Madonna, underscored the degree of feeling the composer and the poet and now the singer aimed to compress into a 12 – line poem.

The two “Freudvoll und Leidvoll”selections that followed set two poems of Goethe, and brought Kaufmann the story-teller forth even more than in the previous selections. He expanded the range of colors – anguish to contemplation, yearning to trembling. The palette was notable as was the thoughtful storytelling. Full of joy and full of sorrow – this was the arc here.

By the time he sang the well-known and beloved “O lieb so lang du lieben kannst,” the downbeat of the concert’s overall landscape, we were settled home. The contrasts of volume, pitch, and timbre emphasized the carpe Diem theme – Seize the day. All too soon we stand over the grave and mourn, a statement of love for another as well as cri de coeur for our own mortality. A couple of moments of hollowed out sound occurred after the initial beauteous round notes that bloomed at first, perhaps due to the projection. But again, Kaufmann righted the ship. Was this the moment to cry wolf – Kaufmann’s voice on a downward trend? I think not. I would say, however, a long roster of songs, a continuous route of concerts here, there and everywhere, a full schedule of opera to follow, recordings, et al – needs to be reconsidered in the future. Guard the gold, some would say, hoard it (and then critique him for not plumbing the depth he might!) but then too, attend to qualitative performance rather than bulk and quantity.

This remained clear as he proceeded with another lied based on Goethe’s story of the King of Thüle. We got plenty of vocal and vocal expression here, strong and low notes, sometimes a bit as he ascended, brassy, but always crisp articulation. Story and singer stayed in the landscape of legend and yet reached out to us in this time and place. As did “Ihr Glocken von Marling,” a touching account of a plea for protection. When Kaufmann ended, his sound, like his presence, were relaxed, soft, human. It was more than believable.

“Die drei Zigeuner,” was an apt follow-up to this intimate near-prayer. Deutsch introduced the song with a gorgeous compilation of trills and arpeggios leading us into the country scene of human beings looking for insight for life’s trials. Kaufmann added many gestures and expression as Liszt’s moments of atonality here made it at once foreign and familiar. “Wie man’s verraucht, verschläft, vergeigt/Und es dreimal verachtet (When life … turns dark, sleep it, smoke it, fiddle it away)” maybe not the most profound of solutions, but it is a more than human one.

The finale of the pre-pause moment was the exquisite “Die Loreley,” and here again, the very dramatic story-telling Kaufmann coupled beautiful round tones with the familiar story of the siren who lures a boatman to death. Art? Love? Life? All, and embodied in the Circe about whom he sings. We are left at the brief break under a spell, the singer being a vessel in which the secret hides and only by vigilant attention can we understand it rather than being grasped by it.
The Second Part

Part II was colored and dramatized by variety which provided energetic and bright rhythmic contrasts, liveliness, sprightly sound, and feeling. Deutsch’s piano was more like a companionship rather than accompaniment, and that made for rich texture of both sound and sense.

Schumann’s “Widmung,” also emerged as if from a secret and maybe sacred place. Kaufmann treated each phrase almost as a separate universe, although they were carefully linked by finessed legato. Here as in Dvorák’s “Als alte Mutter,” the quiet stillness and containment coupled with fine breath control gave us more than cliche; it gave us insight as well to the text and its implications. Despite many who don’t feel or admire Kaufmann’s choice of expressive lines, or comment somewhat sourly on his individual choices of tone or repertory, here again he sidestepped sentimentality by expressing vulnerability and open-heartedness.

Brahms’ familiar lullaby at once brought us back to childhood and kept us pinned to the musicality of this still touching piece. The following Bohm, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky brought us yet another dimension – rich, dark, powerful, Kaufmann’s voice full and moving. His singing felt like speech, not from a lack of musicality, but rather because he enabled down-to-earth articulation to temper fantasy. This was an excellent choice; are we ever too cynical to miss out on genuine tenderness? Zelinsky and Wolf brought additional tenderness, pleading, in a somewhat different landscape with richer broader sounds and commitment to a new dimension, each one putting down another layer of color and reminders of the poet Shelley’s life as a many-colored dome of glass.

Mahler’s magnificent “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” thematically and musically brought this part of the concert to a close. “I am lost to the world/With which I used to waste much time” are the last two lines. Like Wordsworth’s “the world may be too much with us, late and soon,” the familiar question shifted the lulling of our own attention. Deutsch’s opening piano here was delicate and full of depth and introspective sound; Kaufmann entered here seamlessly and joined forces, his range from lower to higher seamless, the passaggio graceful and invisible. More to say on the subject? No doubt, but convincing nonetheless, content and sound merged, the moment of departure graceful and groomed, and as natural as it was fastidious. It was, as if Kaufmann were singing now in his very own voice.

The Encores were at least nine, three more than what Kaufmann and Deutsch performed in Carnegie Hall, or the Kennedy Center, and it was a feast. Ranging from Liszt’s “Es muss ein Wunderbares sein” to Schubert’s “Die Forelle” and Schumann’s “Mondnacht” to Strauss and Wagner, “Träume,” Strauss,’s “Breit” and “Morgen,” each one highlighting the rich vocabulary of German lieder he gave us access to. So too, “Cäecile” and Lehar’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” which just about brought the house down.

Throughout the evening, both Kaufmann and Deutsch gave and gave, and after a program as full and rich as 80 short minutes would allow, he stepped forth to add more to the banquet. Here, he sang with ease and abandon, singing out as if that was the only way to sing. Was it the end of the long tour and returning home that allowed for it? Or the respectful and thoughtful crowd that fostered it?

“Himmel” to “Erde” (heave to earth), we rose and fell, reluctant to say goodbye, reluctant for the feast to be done, a feast more extravagant than we bargained for when we swam or paddled to Berkeley for a concert that exemplified creativity, which we often forget how much we need.

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