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Review: Jonas Kaufmann Returns to Carnegie and the Audience Rejoices

By: Jan. 24, 2018
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Review: Jonas Kaufmann Returns to Carnegie and the Audience Rejoices  Image
Jonas Kaufmann with pianist Helmut Deutsch.
Photo Jennifer Taylor

After a string of cancellations--including the Met's new TOSCA--tenor Jonas Kaufmann made a triumphant return to New York last Saturday at Carnegie Hall, in a recital with his frequent collaborator Helmut Deutsch. Of course, he could have been singing the telephone book and this audience would have lapped it up; instead, he performed Schubert's famed song cycle for tenor and piano, DIE SCHOENE MUELLERIN (THE MILLER'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER) and followed it up with even more songs by the same composer.

Having interviewed enough opera singers of all types, I know how many of them feel about singing songs (in German lieder but, in the common lingo, art songs in general), particularly those in their native language. It renews their voices, it connects them with the language, it permits them to perform and feel like they are sitting in their living rooms and having a grand old time.

Indeed, Kaufmann was clearly happy in his milieu with MUELLERIN and the musicianship of pianist Deutsch, from the first bars of "Das Wandern (Journeying)" ("To journey is the miller's joy...a wretched miller must he be who never thought of journeying...) He the caressed the melodies as if he were making sweet love to them--a little "mild und liese (mildly and gently)," as Isolde sings in Wagner's TRISTAN UND ISOLDE.

Review: Jonas Kaufmann Returns to Carnegie and the Audience Rejoices  Image
Jonas Kaufmann. Photo: Jennifer Taylor

MUELLERIN is certainly one of the more benign examples of the art song cycle: Indeed, when the singer boosted the level of his voice at various points in the evening, it was still pretty quiet. No one would have mistaken him for the tenor who raises the roof in Wagner, Verdi or Bizet. (Kaufmann is expected back at Carnegie in April to perform Act II of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE with the Boston Symphony. Knock on wood.)

Even when he became somewhat more excited, such as in "Der Jaeger (The Hunter)," a bit more than halfway through the evening, Kaufmann didn't make a sound that was less than pretty. (And, incidentally, he sounded even more baritonal than usual in this music--not necessarily a bad thing.) He may have felt the music deeply--and I'm sure he did--but it felt a little distant to me, a little caught up in the mechanics of making these songs little pieces of art.

Frankly, I didn't feel a little fire burning in him until his encores by the same composer: "Der Jüngling an der Quelle," D. 300; "Der Musensohn," D. 764; "Die Forelle," D. 550; and, finally--he saved the best for last--"Der Lindenbaum" from WINTERREISE, D. 911.

The last time he was at Carnegie, about four years ago, he varied the program considerably and I much preferred it, with some Wagner, Schumann, Liszt and, particularly, Richard Strauss bringing out many more of the qualities and colors that Kaufmann's voice possesses. (It also gave pianist Deutsch, who has worked with the tenor since his student days, much more of a chance to shine in his own right, as audiences know he can.)

It might seem picky to complain about the choice of repertoire when one has one of the world's great singers before us, but when we have so little of him, a "wish list" seems part of the territory.

As mentioned, Kaufmann returns to Carnegie Hall on April 12 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to perform Act II of Wagner's TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, with soprano Camilla Nylund.


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