Kaufmann’s Carnegie recital displays the true artistry beneath the celebrity
A Jonas Kaufmann recital at Carnegie Hall is a great event, regardless of the actual quality of the music making. Kaufmann, currently starring in the title role of Werther at the Metropolitan Opera House, is burning brighter than any other star on the opera scene. He was greeted rapturously by a full house Thursday night, and by the second of his six encores, the bulk of the audience was in ecstasy.
One has the impression that the response would have been the same had Kaufmann sat on a stool, reading the newspaper aloud. Considering the amount of noisy inattention—mobile phones ringing, people snoring, chattering, even whistling countermelodies during some of the encores—the question becomes, what are they actually fans of? Kaufmann’s singing or his volcanic fame?
Kaufmann surely deserves the attention, for he is a great singer. His tenor voice has the weight and color of a baritone, yet it is also lithe, and, once fully warmed up, projects easily into a large hall.
His warmup took place on stage, with the opening set of five selections from Robert Schumann’s twelve Zwölf Gedichte, Op. 35.
Kaufmann and accompanist Helmut Deutsch had full command of all the notes, but the music seemed under-prepared, musicality and expression dutiful rather than discerning. Phrases were four-square, dynamics stiff, the gestures overdone. The final song, “Stille Tränen,” was loud and stentorian, wrong for Schumann, as was Deutsch’s heavy pedal.
Dichterliebe, Op. 48, which followed, was entirely different. As with his other songs, Schumann wrote the cycle with a parlor-sized audience in mind. He could not possibly have imagined that this conversation about love between intimates would be sung in front of almost 3,000 people.
The challenge is to seem to whisper while reaching the back row of the balcony, one that Kaufmann met with ease. He clearly has insight into the music, and his expression and technique were acutely focused. His singing was far quieter, even in the forte passages of “Aus alten Märchen,” and the relative hush meant the listener had to reach out a bit to the music, ensuring an intimate connection. Kaufmann sang through the notes and phrases with pure simplicity, letting the music speak through him. Deutsch found his footing as well, playing more quietly, more nimbly, and leaving more open space for his colleague.
Kaufmann’s vocal strength masks the greatest quality of his voice, which comes through when he sings pianissimo, displaying his instrument’s clarity and beauty. After intermission, he sang Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Op. 91, with the same vocal beauty and expressive simplicity. These songs are perhaps Wagner’s most personal music, written to cement an intense emotional affair between himself and the wife of one of his patrons (Mathilde Wesendonck, who wrote the middling, sentimental text).
The music is surprisingly simple, and that makes it some of Wagner’s most affecting. Kaufmann’s ability to set his personality aside enough to let the music sing through him matched the beauty of the songs. It is an important quality and not easy for such a dominant performer, but it marks Kaufmann not just as a great singer but as a great artist.
The closing Tre sonetti di Petrarca from Liszt tossed more red meat to the fans, especially with the hammy, extroverted “Benedetto sia’l giorno.” Although Kaufmann has proven himself as a terrific Verdi singer, his Italian diction is not especially fluid, and at times sounds oddly Sicilian. That was subsumed in his lovely singing of “Pace no trovo” and “I’ vidi in terra,” which was again quiet, grippingly lovely and intimate.
In a sense, the bulk of the concert happened after the main event: six encores, including four songs from Strauss, Schumann’s “Mondnacht” from Liederkreis and the last, “Gern hab ich die Frau’n geküβt” from Lehár’s Paganini. As encores, these were natural relaxed, with again a striking simplicity. The Strauss songs, “Breit über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar,” “Heimliche Aufforderung,” “Freundliche Vision,” and “Cäcilie,” were particularly moving, with the luminous clarity and phrasing of the third perhaps the finest musical moment of the evening.
Challenging that pinnacle were the loveliness of “Mondnacht” and the easy, naïve charm of Kaufmann dipping into English in the final moments to sing “girls were made to love and kiss.” Unsurprisingly, that elicited a general swoon.
Natalie Dessay sings at Carnegie Hall March 12, 8 p.m. carnegiehall.org