BWW Reviews: Follow the Lieder, Part Two--JONAS KAUFMANN Conquers Carnegie

By: Feb. 24, 2014
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What does an opera singer do on his night off from singing the title role in Massenet's WERTHER in a new production at the Metropolitan? If he's the charismatic wunder-tenor Jonas Kaufmann, he heads over to Carnegie Hall to conquer another world, with his recital debut in an evening of German art songs, or lieder.

And triumph he did.

Grand intimacy

After hearing Gerald Finley sing Schubert's "Winterreise" the previous week in the 599-seat Zankel Hall and thinking the size was about right for this kind of performance, I wondered what Kaufmann's lieder concert could do to fill the reaches of the 2804-seat Carnegie. I needn't have worried.

Kaufmann was so clearly at home in the concert's repertoire and his powerful baritonal voice was so flexible to the varied demands of the music that he made it into an intimate performance on a grand scale. This might seem like an oxymoron in describing some other singers, but not Kaufmann.

Depth of connection

As a German, he feels a deep connection to the music of Schumann and Wagner, represented on the program by selections from "Zwoelf Gedichte (Twelve Poems)," Op. 35 and the entire "Dichterliebe (A Poet's Love)," Op. 48, for the former, and "Wesendonck Lieder (Wesendonck Songs)," Op. 90, for the latter. Not only that, but he also has kindred feelings about the poets who inspired the composers, most notably by Goethe, but also by Kerner.

These works fit the singer as if they had been written for him, with the tenor ready to float a note (on the word im halfway through "Ich grolle nicht [I bear no grudge]") or be "operatic" and full-voiced (in "Stille Traenen [Silent Tears]," to be urgent (in "Die Rose, die lillie, die taube, die sonne [The rose, the lily, the dove the sun]") or suave and sad (in "Traume [Dreams]"). There has been some controversy about his choice of the Wagner songs, which were originally written for soprano but which Kaufmann insists are gender neutral. He wins.

Elevated the piano's role

I was particularly entranced by the gracefulness of the writing in the "Dichteliebe"-- not only for the way they brought out the nuances of Kaufmann's voice (the urgency, the power, the thoughtfulness), but how it elevated the piano to the equal of the singer. Helmut Deutsch, who has worked with Kaufmann since the singer's student days and, judging by his performance at this concert, is a virtuoso in his own right. There were times when one didn't know who to listen to first, because the music for piano was not "mere" accompaniment to the singer but thrilling in its own right.

After the written part of the program was over, with Liszt's "Tre sonetti di Petrarca [Three Sonnets of Petrarca]," Kaufmann let it rip with a half dozen encores, mostly by Richard Strauss, whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year and who is a favorite composer of the singer. (Kaufmann joked that everyone is "fed up" with Verdi and Wagner, after their extended bicentennial celebrations in 2013.) He sounded free and reenergized, as if he could go on all night. The audience yelled and cheered, as if they could go on, too.

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Jonas Kaufmann as the title character in Massenet's WERTHER at the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera



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