In a highly anticipated return, Kaufmann hits his stride late in Schubert cycle

Sun Jan 21, 2018 at 1:25 pm
Jonas Kaufmann performed Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin" Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Julian Hargreaves

Jonas Kaufmann performed Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Julian Hargreaves

Saturday night saw the long-awaited return of Jonas Kaufmann to New York. The superstar tenor has been among the most bankable box-office names of the last decade, but his decision to spend more time with family in Europe led to a string of awkward cancellations, and, eventually, an absence of several years from American stages.

He returned to Carnegie Hall Saturday night in one of the most anticipated performances of the season: giving Schubert’s first great song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, with Helmut Deutsch, one of the most celebrated lieder pianists of the last half-century. It was a memorable recital in the end, but proved to be a tale of two halves.

Quite simply, it took the first ten of the twenty-song cycle for Kaufmann to warm up. It’s in this first half that Wilhelm Müller’s poems establish the relationship between the miller, our narrator, and the miller’s daughter whose love ultimately leads him to despair. They are vital to the audience’s immersion in the work, yet Kaufmann’s accuracy in these early songs–especially the first, “Das Wandern”–was suspect, and nothing seemed to come easily to him. It felt as though he was trying to force his voice into a lighter shade that doesn’t come naturally, and it wouldn’t cooperate. He was able to work well with contrast in songs like “Der Neugierige,” pitting a plaintive half-whisper against insistent passion; but many attempts to float high soft notes caught in his throat.

Yet this was still a performance worthy of its billing. Even when he struggled vocally, Kaufmann’s dramatic engagement with the text was admirable. “Morgengruß,” a tender song of courtship, showed wonderful hints of humor as he tried to win the heart of the woman he admires. “Mein!” developed from a fluttering of excitement into a manic explosion of joy.

But even more crucial to the success of this reading was the change in his voice as it progressed; over the second half of the cycle, Kaufmann delivered an extraordinary musical performance, the sort that anyone familiar with his career surely came expecting. At last, the full, dark-hued voice that is so unique among tenors was sounding at its best, and began to serve the music. “Mit dem grünen Lautenbande” found his obsession growing more detached from reality, manifesting as full-throated, passionate devotion, turning immediately into the frantic envy of “Der Jäger,” an outburst of frustration at the miller-maid’s fascination with the hunter.

Taken as a set, the final three songs of the cycle are as crushing as anything in Schubert’s oeuvre, alternately fatalist and consoling. Kaufmann drove the cycle home with amazing emotional weight, sounded totally broken in “Trockne Blumen”: the “Ach” that begins the second verse was almost spoken, conveying a world of grief in a single syllable. “Der Müller und der Bach” gave us a tearful, sighing summation of the miller’s journey, followed by the spellbinding lullaby of “Des Baches Wiegenlied.” This was Deutsch’s finest work, too–all evening he played with glowing sound and musical sensitivity, creating excitement, tension, and tenderness. But the gentle rocking of the final lullaby was exquisite.

It’s in the nature of a cycle like this that many of its songs can stand out in any given performance as its emotional core. In Kaufmann’s rendition on Saturday, that role fell to “Die liebe Farbe,” wherein the narrator’s obsession with the miller-maid turns into a fatal obsession with the color green. In Kaufmann’s rendition, it was here that we first truly heard signs of the deep grief that was to come. His voice in this song was at its best: robust, lyrical, colorful, unleashed at its full weight in the second verse, almost like a Wagnerian hero, only to be completely overcome by emotion.

Having waited several years to hear him again, the Kaufmann faithful wouldn’t be satisfied until they’d had an encore. There were four, in fact, all by Schubert.

“Der Jüngling an der Quelle” was like a second lullaby, tenderly sung, featuring soft weaving in the piano. “Musensohn” was a lively contrast, and the immortally cheerful “Die Forelle” was sung with sparkle, featuring perfect, gurgling little scales in the piano. Finally came “Der Lindenbaum,” in a stoic vocal rendition.

At the risk of being a killjoy, as enjoyable as these encores were, they were out of place. A performance of Die Schöne Müllerin, like its sister cycle Winterreise, is not an ordinary song recital. It is a journey complete unto itself, and the emotions that linger with the audience as they leave the hall are a major part of its force. To follow it with a string of encores dispels that magic, and only dulls the impact that the artist has spent more than an hour working to create.


6 Responses to “In a highly anticipated return, Kaufmann hits his stride late in Schubert cycle”

  1. Posted Jan 21, 2018 at 3:17 pm by Angelika

    This comment in the last paragraph is certainly right. But what would have happened if, after four years of absence, Kaufmann had said goodbye without an encore. That the choice fell on four Schubert songs and not on Operetta, was certainly the best of all solutions.

  2. Posted Jan 21, 2018 at 8:35 pm by Lois Silverstein

    I heard the recital in Santa Monica earlier in the week. The encores had the same effect, but the audience would not be satisfied without more of Kaufmann’s repertoire.

    It is sad to break the spell, I agree, and those hungry for his sound and dramatic artistry, put that aside for more, more, more, especially the young members of the audience who had only heard him by CD or hearsay. Perhaps like Kaufmann himself, we must be able to switch modalities to accommodate the real and the ideal. In JK, we can get both, thankfully.

  3. Posted Jan 22, 2018 at 8:30 am by rotraud mildschuh

    naturally, being in vienna,i couldn’ t partecipate in this recital.
    as to your last paragraph: how extraordinarily you are right !
    christian gerhaher, for sure, wouldn’ t have done so.
    best regards
    R.M.

  4. Posted Jan 22, 2018 at 11:51 pm by Mister New York

    Singing a Shubert song cycle in Carnegie Hall is a terible venue to see and hear a lieder recital. First of all if you are sitting upstairs you can’t see the singers eyes or face. And whatever is said about the great acoustics of Carnegie Hall, there are a lot of places where the sound is dead and dry. Glad the audience liked it, but I’m not unhappy that I didn’t pay for Carnegie’s overpriced tickets.

  5. Posted Jan 25, 2018 at 11:09 am by Geo.

    Although I wasn’t at this concert, I can speak to the implicit question of concert length, as alluded to in the presence of the encores. A concert-going acquaintance here (STL) traveled to NYC some years back to hear Thomas Quasthoff sing “Die schone Mullerin” at Carnegie. That was the only work on the program. Think about it: people paid hefty sums of $ for just 60 or so minutes of music.

    That seems to me the reason why JK was willing to have some encores up his sleeve, namely the subliminal concern of value for money, the established merits of this song cycle aside. Perhaps an alternative solution would have been for Helmut Deutsch to perform some solo Schubert piano music, or alternatively, some mood-setting stand-alone songs **before** “Die schone Mullerin”, or even a bit of both.

  6. Posted Jan 26, 2018 at 1:39 pm by KMW

    I enjoyed hearing the encores but was surprised to hear any.

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