The Washington Post, October 18, 2021
By Michael Andor Brodeur
Liederabend, Washington, 17. Oktober 2021
At the Kennedy Center, songs you haven’t heard and cellphones you wish you hadn’t
In his first appearance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday night, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and longtime collaborator and pianist Helmut Deutsch offered a feast of lieder, familiar and not, beguiling a nearly full house with two hours of art songs from Liszt, Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, Strauss, Dvorak, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and more.

By the end of the encores — of which there were eight — one stood with the creaky feeling that typically attends a more private late-night binge.

The bite-size quality of lieder — most sit somewhere between three and six minutes — is part of what makes them so snackable. One layer of music, another of Romantic poetry, rolled in chewy German and often served in sumptuous cycles — what’s not to love? But the best lieder put this economy to work, employing it to concentrate emotional punch and combine poetic textures and tones — the salt and the sweet. Deutsch also has an affinity for playing with tempo, pulling the songs apart and savoring each note. Let all of these food metaphors not conjure cheese; these are not empty calories.

Kaufmann and Deutsch have recorded multiple collections of lieder together since 2006, a shared history with the form that lent the program its only intentional through line. Their most recent, “Freudvoll und Leidvoll,” recorded during the pandemic, is focused entirely on the neglected lieder of Franz Liszt.

We don’t hear these songs often — and certainly neither did those who were around when most of them were composed between 1840 and 1847.

In his notes for “Freudvoll und Leidvoll,” Deutsch supposes this neglect is rooted in a “stylistic variety” that begs to be read euphemistically. He also cites Liszt’s own self-described tendency to “hurl his spear into the vast expanse of the future” rather than, say, the salons that surrounded him.

Which leads to another reason these songs have gone so unfortunately unheard: the extreme subtlety of their Lisztiness. The virtuosic fireworks and technical bravura one might expect from the composer is subdued in his songs into a far more gentle touch — a tenderness and tension that delivers its drama through color, and draws its power from within. As Kaufmann pointed out at the outset of the evening — which he dedicated to the art of the art song itself — when it comes to lieder, “there is no before and no after.”

But before we get started here, and in the interest of public service, I’m going to ask you to silence your phones. Right now. Just for practice.

I can still count the concerts I’ve attended at the Kennedy Center on two hands, but I count on zero hands the number of times a performance hasn’t been interrupted — as it was several times on Sunday night — by various intrusive jingles, dings and squippets, which, I agree, is not even a word.

The piercing ping of an incoming text — during “Ihr Glocken von Marling” — was softened only slightly by its irony: “You bells of Marling, how brightly you peal!” The suddenly speakerphoned voice of a customer service bot broke the crystalline gaze of Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Selige Stunde” — leading me to believe that at least one attendee was not just using their phone, but paying their phone bill as Kaufmann plaintively sang of broken spells and wishes of love falling stumm und klein (i.e. mute and small). And Strauss’s “Morgen!” was nearly canceled at its outset by a texter who probably could have taken the sixth encore as an indication that a seventh might be in the offing.

Y’all have really got to get this under control. The introduction of digital programs and QR codes into what was once a blissfully low-tech concert experience has indeed spiked the likelihood of these foibles, but we are now 20 years into the smartphone era, so I kind of don’t want to hear it (in multiple senses). Take the time to learn to silence your phones. Family and friends are standing by to help. I scold because I care.

Okay, where were we?

The program’s first half (partitioned from the second by a momentary offstage sip of water) was entirely devoted to Liszt, whose settings of poems by Goethe and Heine were rendered with watercolor softness through Deutsch’s hands. He masterfully captured Liszt’s evocation of the roll and flow of the Rhine through Cologne (“Im Rhein, im schönen Strome,” S. 272), the lulling chime of the bells of Marling, the crashing waves engulfing the love-struck sailor at the conclusion of “Die Loreley.”

But even more impressive than Deutsch’s sound was his facility with silence, his generous allowance for vast spans of space. In giving the lieder room to breathe, he gave them a chance to grow, Liszt a chance to explain himself at the scale he thought proper, and Kaufmann clearance to soar.

Deutsch and Kaufmann make a natural duo, both in their white-tie-and-tails symmetry, but also in their effortless conversationalism. Their loose tempos and drifting cadences brought to mind a thawing river, the current of each song carrying them along — especially, and appropriately enough, at the breathtaking conclusion of “Im Rhein.”

They were together capable of impossible delicacy: “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” in particular felt fragile enough to collapse under the weight of Kaufmann’s husky tenor. But they also pushed each other to intense heights — the mournful yet rhapsodic “O lieb, solang du lieben kannst” (S. 298) was the first of several songs to subvert Kaufmann’s polite, pre-show request to lay off the applause. Elsewhere, Kaufmann demonstrated elasticity that never sacrificed power or control; he went from feathery to leathery in the course of a single couplet of “Die drei Zigeuner” (S. 320).

Perhaps most striking about Kaufmann, both in the context of his career and the curious position in which lieder put the singer, is how adept he’s become at inhabiting the form. The second half of the evening found Kaufmann and Deutsch taking a nostalgic stroll through 20 additional lieder — including the eight encores — taken from recordings they’ve made together.

They continued to let the Goethe times roll, singing stunning settings of the poet by Mozart (“Das Veilchen,” K. 476), Schubert (“Der Musensohn,” D. 764) and “Wandrers Nachtlied II,” D. 768) and Tchaikovsky (Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt”) — all of which seemed in service of showcasing the force of the form as much as Kaufmann’s voice.

As Kaufmann has grown more silvery, so, too, has his instrument. But sharper has grown his sense of expression, his ease with furnishing the single room of a song. “Morgen!” was the penultimate encore in the extended spread of parting gifts, the last three of which were a trio of Strauss lieder taken from one of the duo’s first recordings in 2006.

Listen to Kaufmann back then and his voice emerges from his chest with the reassuring distance of a young man summoning (and savoring) his power. He was singing the song, and doing it well.

On Sunday, it was as if Kaufmann were skating across Deutsch’s spare piano, aware he could plummet beneath its cracking surface at any moment, and tracing each figure with a precision that felt drawn between defeat and defiance. For a song that longs for tomorrow, it sounded liberated from time. And this time, he wasn’t just singing the song, he was telling the whole story.

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