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Kaufmann der König

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 19, 2013 at 1:39 pm

I have to admit that I have taken rather longer than most to appreciate Jonas Kaufmann.

While his debut at the Met as Siegmund was, as I said at the time, on the whole impressive, he didn’t always have the heft nor complete mastery of the vocal range required. I am not fortunate enough to be able to get to Manhattan to see his debut as the lead in Parsifal but – avoiding reviews as much as I can – the Twittersphere is alive with plaudits. Sadly I have to wait until March to experience it in high definition in the cinema but I am definitely more excited by this Parsifal than others that I have attended. Suffice it to say I find it a difficult opera.

However here is a disc that demonstrates that he is a singer – and in particular a Wagner tenor – of both vocal prowess and musical intelligence.

This recital doesn’t cover old ground in terms of segments of Wagner included in his previous disc – here he performs the In Fernem Land in the unedited version for example – and the extracts from the operas are chosen with intelligence.

The recital opens with that magical moment in Die Walküre when Siegmund is left alone to consider his fate as he awaits the dawn in Hunding’s abode. Rhythmically alert brass and agitated strings create an immediate sense of tension and his opening entry is full-bodied and eloquent. Each and every word is crystal clear and he switches to sustained lyricism with ease at ein Weib sah’ ich, wonnig und hehr. The dynamic control into Wälse! Wälse! is impressively handled yet I do think that the second cry of Wälse is a tad indulgent and you can even perceive a slight flutter in Kaufmann’s singing as he pushes on slightly too long. But a peevish criticism I admit as it remains electrifying. And again at Selig schien mir der Sonne Licht Kaufmann’s trademark lyricism. Throughout the monologue Kauffman slips from the more declamatory, heroic passages to the lyrical sections with incredible ease.

Next from father to son for Siegfried’s Daß der mein Vater nicht ist. Over gentle murmuring string, Kaufmann again launches into this monologue and against effortlessly slips between dialogue and lyricism. How touchingly and in hushed tones he sings Das kann ich nun gar nicht mir denken … ein Menshenweib for example. Anyone who has read Eve Rieger’s recent book will relish interpreting the ‘masculine vs feminine’ phrase construction at this point I would imagine.

The mastery of Wagner’s orchestration is very much to the fore at this point and beautifully played by the orchestra of the Deutschen Oper Berlin. All credit in particular to the cor anglais player – as a former oboist I know how difficult it is to play badly and the player does so magnificently!

But personally the highlight of the disc is Rienzi’s Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab! I cannot remember the last time I listened to this sung – or performed for that matter – with such rapt intensity. Kaufman’s first entry is a study in vocal control both dynamically and legato phrasing which continues through his delivery of the first iteration of ‘Rienzi theme’ and maintain the emotional momentum through its repeat and into the closing bars. Marvellous.

Next is Tannhäuser’s Rome Narration that demonstrates the rich texture and colouring of Kaufmann’s voice throughout its range. Kaufmann’s musical intelligence ensures that he moulds what can sometimes be a relentlessly difficult monologue to maintain in terms of interest and momentum into a compelling, dramatic scene. Just listen to the way he bends and colours his voice at Hast du so böse Lust geteilt. Simply chilling and again menacingly underpinned in the orchestra and in stark contrast to the lustful – full throated – singing with which Kaufmann closes the extract.

Kaufmann returns to a nobler, more lyrical characterisation for Walther’s Am stillen Herdin Winterszeit before ending his operatic selection with the full Grail Narration from Lohengrin. He captures perfectly the ‘other-worldly’ sense of the opening bars and matches vocally the timbre Wagner creates in the orchestra, once again floating effortlessly to the top notes even when singing in the most hushed tones. Wagner may have decided to cut the second stanza but Kaufmann makes a compelling argument for its inclusion if it can always be sung with such purpose and grandeur.

And in both Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Kaufmann is most ably supported by Markus Brück and the chorus of the Deutschen Oper Berlin.

And so to Kaufmann’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. Call me a traditionalist – and much as I wanted to love these performances as much as the extracts from Wagner’s operas – after repeated listening I came to an opposite conclusion. Do not misunderstand me. Kaufmann sings this extended love letter to Mathilde Wesendonck beautifully, with great eloquence and sensitivity.

Yet they do not convince. It has nothing to do with the songs being sung by a tenor – not even one as talented as Kaufmann – but simply that they lose some sense of their sensuality and purpose overall. But there is no disputing that Kaufmann makes an almost convincing argument for their performance by a male voice here but not quite enough. Not even the Tristan-inspired Im Treibhaus where the orchestra pull out some incredibly transparent and chamber-like playing can ultimately convince.

But not surprisingly they do not detract from what is an impressively performed and constructed recital disc. And as I have already mentioned, the orchestra of the Deutschen Oper Berlin play with great beauty and conviction. All the more so surprising as I have in the past not rated Donald Runnicles. Perhaps his rapport with this orchestra is greater than with any other as he does coax incredibly playing, colour and warmth from this ensemble.

But this is very much Kaufmann’s disc. It furthers his position as the leading Wagner tenor performing at the moment. And if all accounts of his Parsifal at the Met are correct, then his position is cemented as tenor regnant.

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  1. […] in LePage’s Ring cycle, it was his Met debut. As I remarked while listening to his recent Wagner recital CD, he is an authoritative singer and clearly one of the – if not the – leading Wagnerian tenors […]

  2. […] subsequent monologue is beautifully delivered. More so that on Kaufmann’s recent recital disc in that Gergiev takes the vocal line beyond the cries of Wälse. They aren’t the more normal […]

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