The Telegraph, March 30, 2022
Liederabend, London, 29.3.2022
Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau, Barbican
To allow one singing superstar to command the stage in an evening of song is a straightforward proposition. To invite two at once is trickier. Each somehow has to relate to – and make space for – the other.

At Tuesday night’s duo recital at the Barbican, superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann and equally starry soprano Diana Damrau found a familiar way to manage the situation; they took on the roles of a pair of lovers, sometimes flirty, sometimes aggrieved, acting out little romantic encounters through the medium of more than three dozen Romantic songs by Schumann and Brahms. As Damrau explained before the recital began, it was a progression from darkness and turbulence to sunny contentment – an interesting reversal of the normal progression of Romantic song, where early hopes always give way to disappointment and heartbreak.

A Romantic song recital may be the last remaining corner of the Western world where gender stereotypes are still permittsable, and these two superstars appeared to embrace that fact. She was in voluminous gowns (dark for the first half, light for the second), he was encased in rigid tie and tails. She was all expressive hands and gestures, he was ramrod straight, except when he was insinuating something into Damrau’s ear during one of the flirty duets.

Damrau was all feathery, yielding softness, singing in a fundamentally easy, light way on la punta della voce, “the edge of the voice” as the Italians say. With Kaufmann, on the other hand, the act of singing seemed to engage his entire body, and was never easy. It came across as a strenuous feat of “manly” fortitude, his tenor voice becoming ever darker and more baritone-like as he ascended to a high note.

In a long programme focused on just two composers and a constant to-and-fro of yearning and contentment or disappointment, there was the danger of a certain sameness creeping in, which this concert didn’t entirely avoid. But there were plenty of deep, luminous moments to remind us that these are indeed two great singers. In Brahms’s song Angklänge (Echoes), which uses dark colours to paint what should be a happy scene – a young woman embroidering her wedding dress – Damrau showed her light voice could stretch to foreboding and tragedy. Kaufmann, having impressed us with that dark-grained vocal instrument, on occasion surprised with a beautifully soft tone, as in Wir wandelten, Brahms’s evocation of two lovers walking side-by-side. And in Schumann’s meditation on nocturnal sadness Stille Tränen (Silent Tears), he conjured a truly heroic intensity.

In the second half, the emotional temperature was bound to dip, as the Romantics weren’t so keen on love requited. But there were enjoyable things such as the flirty duet Vergebliches Ständchen (Vain Serenade), which avoided archness by a hair’s breadth, and the cosily ecstatic final duet Weg der Liebe (Way of Love). Two singing stars may not be twice as good as one, but now and then it’s a treat well worth having. IH

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