CBSO / Andris Nelsons / Jonas Kaufmann - Symphony Hall Birmingham, 7 March 2012
What’s in the middle of Birmingham but surrounded by sea?
The CBSO’s very, very special guest was placed at the centre of Wednesday evening’s programme, and rightfully so. Before him came Britten’s Sea Interludes; after, Debussy’s La Mer.
But let’s not pretend this was a mere guest soloist spot. With ten songs on the programme (eleven if you count the encore) we received a more bountiful helping of Herr Kaufmann than many an orchestrally-grouted recital programme provides.
Clearly not a Bayer Leverkusen fan, Jonas bounded on stage full of smiles, revealing his freshly de-braced wall of HD-ready teeth. He swiftly reconfigured his grin into a scowl for Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. But you could tell his heart wasn’t truly in it. To perform these searing songs with the intensity they demand requires an emotional investment that would make the physical act of singing impossible for most performers. So most, like Kaufmann, act out instead. I couldn’t fault the supreme craft, nor the breathtaking technical control of the somewhat mannered mezza voce he chose to deploy. But I’m afraid he left me cold.
A bag of crisps and a cherry coke later (me, not Jonas) came a Strauss grouping centred on the Op.27 songs the composer wrote as a wedding gift for his beloved Pauline. Kaufmann’s unfettered generosity and exuberance shone through as he launched, at last, into thrilling full voice. As Andris Nelsons plumped the CBSO into a plush cushion of sound behind him, the hall came alive. Kaufmann is a singer at the very top of his game right now, matching outstanding technical gifts with unbound passion for the music. How could anyone sing these songs better? The audience, predictably, erupted at the end - though some couldn’t wait that long and burst into spontaneous applause after a breathtaking Morgen. The reward was the predictable but none the less rewarding Zueignung, tangily sincere.
I got the impression Jonas would have been happy to sing for us all night, but there was a strict schedule to be followed. Strauss’s sweet songs led with surprising ease to the syrup and glitter of La Mer. But it was no anticlimax - Nelsons whipped the final movement into a stormy megadecibel froth to send us home with our ears ringing.