La Scena Musicale

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Letters from Munich: Jonas Kaufmann liederabend

Photo credit: Wilfrid Hoesl
Greetings from beautiful Munich! I arrived Tuesday morning for a week of wonderful music. With the Munich Festival in full swing, summer time here is a feast for opera lovers. This year is even more special because it is the 850th birthday of the city. Among the celebrations is the re-opening of the exquisite Rococo Cuvillies Theatre. We Canadian journalists are fortunate to have scheduled a private tour of this theatre, so I will have more to say in a few days.

Our Munich sojourn got off to a terrific start, with a lieder recital by the fast-rising tenor Jonas Kaufmann. It sold out days in advance. By six o'clock, there were quite a number of desperate people milling about outside the Prinzregententheater, with “suche Karte” signs in hand, hoping to get lucky. Those in possession of a ticket were treated to a remarkable display by an artist in his vocal prime.

Kaufmann is that rare breed - a budding heldentenor with gorgeous tone and great technical facility, not the least of which is a completely secure top register. He has total command of his voice, from the tiniest pianissimo to full throat forte. Everything is executed with utmost taste and musicality. Being tall, dark and handsome doesn't hurt either. Born in Munich, Kaufmann mostly sings elsewhere – in Zurich where he lives, in Covent Garden where he is a big star, and in New York and Chicago where he has loyal fan bases. Munich is very proud of its native son and Kaufmann was vociferously applauded when he entered. The applause only grew throughout the two hour concert.

Kaufmann opened with Schubert's Die Burgschaft, D. 246, which showed off his story-telling skills. Only a native German speaker is capable of such clarity of diction, coupled with lively acting that comes with a full understanding of the text. The long aria is really a mini-opera, and he held the audience’s attention throughout.

He followed the Schubert piece with Sieben sonette nach Michaelangelo, Op. 22 by Benjamin Britten, written for the tenor Peter Pears, Bitten’s partner in life and in art. The tessitura is very high, designed to show off the best part of Pears' voice. From the words of the opening song, “Si come nella penna” Kaufmann's tone rang out, fully bringing out the dramatic nature of the text. His Italian may not have the incisiveness he had in the German songs, but it is still pretty darn good. His singing had great variety, with all the requisite chiaroscuro one could want. Kaufmann was unsparing with his high notes, particularly his remarkably secure pianissimi, but he never resorted to a falsetto like some dramatic tenors. The baritonal timbre of his sound recalls a young Jon Vickers, although unlike Vickers, Kaufmann never croons. He always incorporates the chest register into his head voice. Judging from his concert and his Don Jose from Covent Garden, he is the premier jugendlich dramatic tenor voice in front of the public today.

After a 30 minute intermission, Kaufmann returned for an all Strauss program, in keeping with the Festival theme. He began with a most expressive "All mein Gedanken" – what a joy to the ear! Similarly, his "Du meines Herzens Kronelein" had lots of lovely soft singing. He brought out the humour in "Ach weh mir ungluckhaftem Mann", and the audience responded with spontaneous applause - unusual in Germany where the ever respectful audience always waits until the end of a group to applaud. "Ich liebe dich" was sung in an unusually declamatory manner, a little unusual for a love song. The vocal line is very emphatic, and the piano accompaniment curiously echoes the introduction to the presentation of the rose in Die Rosenkavalier.

If there was a fly in the ointment, it was the over reverberant acoustics in the Prinzregententheater, accentuated by the fully opened piano lid. Sometimes Helmut Deutsh’s ever-excellent playing was a little loud. Deutsch was/is Kaufmann's teacher, and the two performed with great rapport, with much communication and mutual trust.

Of all the Strauss songs Kaufmann sang this evening, I have two favourites. One was "Heimliche Aufforderung". I know some women singers tackle this, but for me this is a man's song, and Kaufmann's singing here has a certain, full throated, 'let it rip' quality but also plenty of sensitivity. My other favourite was Sehnsucht: wonderfully sustained, high piano soft singing in the last verse. If I were to allow myself a third favourite, it would be Cacilie. This closed the formal concert, showing once again his thrilling top.

The evening ended in many, many shouts of bravo and the two were called back time and time again. The inevitable encores began with Breit uber mein haupt, delivered in a straight forward, honest fashion. I have a soft spot for Beverly Sills' singing of this with orchestra, in half voice only, and very, very slow. Not at all authentic, but still very beautiful. The name of the second encore escapes me, but the third was Nichts. Kaufmann even offered a fourth encore. He gave unstintingly and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to hear a wonderful artist at the height of his powers. As if a two hour concert wasn't tiring enough, Kaufmann signed autographs after the show. I didn't stay but one of my Canadian friends, a huge Kaufmann fan, lined up for autographs and photo ops, and I am sure I will get choice pictures from him soon!

I will have more to report after the Ariadne tomorrow.

Joseph So

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