Jonas Kaufmann / Helmut Deutsch - Nationaltheater Munich, 26 July 2011
One of life's great guilty pleasures is striding past a straggle of downcast faces and Suche Karte signs, smugly contemplating the sought-after ticket tucked away in one's own reticule.
Jonas Kaufmann sings pretty regularly in his home town of Munich but even so this was an instant sell out. The five extra rows of seating squeezed in over the opera house's covered orchestra pit were nothing like enough. The lucky ticket holders were -guess what? - mostly female and middle-aged with a number of ladies-only parties amongst them. The backslapping businessmen and their rigidly-coiffed wives who normally populate the posh seats seemed to have stayed at home.
It's a big venue for a couple of guys and a piano to fill. I didn't get a tape measure out, but my coveted row six stalls seat felt like the back of Wigmore Hall. From the upper tiers I guess the intimacy of lieder could only be conjured by the imagination. It was the size of the venue as much as Kaufmann's natural strengths which made the more operatically-inclined sections of the programme the most effective.
Actually, I'm not sure if even Wigmore Hall would have done much for his opening Liszt selection. Memorable melody and psychological acuity were not the composer's strengths. The texts for this selection came from the greatest of German poets, Goethe and Heine, but the musical settings sound almost interchangeable. If the test for a great Lied is whether you could imagine the music being paired with any words other than its own text (think Schubert's Erlkönig, Gretchen am Spinnrade or even Die Forelle) then Liszt fails each time.
Where Liszt often scores is, unsurprisingly, with the piano part. Unfortunately Helmut Deutsch, like the snoring husbands around me, had settled on the role of accompanist to the main attraction. He played beautifully but modestly, leaving Kaufmann to do what he could. Kaufmann is in superb voice right now, with absolute control of his instrument, but I sensed a lack of connection with the material, and nothing about these songs sounded essential. A dutiful anniversary excursion, nothing more.
What the Liszt selection did, purely by contrast, was to point out how expertly Mahler set the Rückert-Lieder which followed. Each song has its own musical personality, brilliantly matched to the text, and a dramatic sweep that makes each like a mini-opera. From the dreamy Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft to the blazing Um Mitternacht, Kaufmann found the perfect tone colours to match. And if Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is as some think Mahler's greatest Lied, then Kaufmann did it justice in a mesmerising performance that seemed perfectly attuned to its every word. Deutsch matched him, displaying that rare ability some pianists have to evoke an entire orchestra with a touch of the keys.
Given that Kaufmann is rightly noted for the heroic and very manly quality of his voice, his second half selection of songs more usually associated with the female voice was interesting if not downright provocative. Of course men do sing Duparc and Strauss, and often, but even so they seem more natural territory for a silvery soprano.
Unlike many sopranos, Kaufmann's diction was impeccable throughout, proving that his French is pretty much irreproachable. His Duparc tended to the prosaic (and dare I say it, Germanic) but an almost feminine delicacy and care with words preserved the fragile essence of the material.
But it was the closing Strauss section that proved his crowning achievement. Forget Fleming, Brewer, Isokoski, Schwanewilms or whoever. Strauss's opera roles might not fit Kaufmann like a glove, but the songs do. Once again, Deutsch conjured up an orchestra with his fingers. Kaufmann switched to operatic gear and let fly. Having spent most of the evening in mezza voce, he could legitimately exploit the thrilling power of his full voice again and again. Now that's something you wouldn't get in the Wigmore Hall.
Four encores and a standing ovation later it was all over.
Franz Liszt Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, Im Rhein, im schönen Strome, Freudvoll und leidvoll, Der König in Thule, Die Glocken von Marling, Die drei Zigeuner
Gustav Mahler - Rückert-Lieder Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft,
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Um Mitternacht, Liebst du um Schönheit
Henri Duparc L'Invitation au Voyage, Phidylé, Le Manoir de Rosamonde, Chanson triste, La vie antérieure
Richard Strauss Schlechtes Wetter, Schön sind, doch kalt die Himmelssterne, Befreit, Junggesellenschwur, Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten plus encores - Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann, Zueignung, Heimliche Aufforderung