At age 51 German tenor Jonas Kaufmann ought to be at the top of his game. By that I mean he should be singing better than ever before. He has survived the rigors of every Wagnerian Heldentenor role and has lived to tell. His repertoire encompasses tenor roles from the lyric to the heroic with mostly good results. His past vocal troubles have caused him to rethink his approach to singing, and on the evidence of his last forays here and abroad he appears to have surmounted them and sung on. But even the sturdiest of voices, even the most successful vocalists must at some point in their careers take stock, rethink, reassess how they want to continue and how long they will carry on.
Now Kaufmann is out with Selige Stunde a new SONY CD containing over two dozen Lieder by Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Strauss, Brahms… mostly the best known ones from the German 18th, 19th, and early 20th century songbooks. There are also a few rarities by Silcher, Carl Bohm, Zemlinsky…standards by Grieg, Dvořák, Tschaikovsky (sic) in German all of them. There’s even a stab at Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – a song that ought to remain the sole property of mezzo-sopranos or at least singers of any gender with an uncanny gift for floating the voice. And if you don’t know what that means have a listen at any male or female Lieder singer of your choice delivering this extraordinary song.
In tackling this repertory, the usually reliable, often exciting Jonas Kaufmann comes up short. First and foremost, lesser voices have achieved success singing the intimate, narrative miniatures of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss by virtue of the one and essential gift that Jonas Kauffman seems to lack on the evidence of this album: the ability to interpret and bring to life the drama inherent in the words of the poets set to music by these composers. There is but sameness in vocal color, intent and inflexion that track after track of 29 early on grows numbing. Pianist Helmut Deutsch is the stalwart companion through this musical journey.
And then there’s the vocalism itself. Kauffman appears to be tentative in his handling of his large operatic voice and uncertain as to how to approach the ever tricky passage from the middle to the high voice. At times the tenor applies full volume to phrases that should caress, not impress – an example being his handling of the climactic moments in Adelaide. At other times he arbitrarily slides into an easy croon rather than engaging a true mezza voce up and down from start to finish – an example being his Verschwiegene Liebe, Eichendorff’s rapturous elegy to silent love whose silence is broken by Kaufmann’s blunt approach.
The riches of the Lieder repertory should by no means be off-limits to stentorian voices like Kaufmann’s and there is plenty of evidence that other heroic voices have successfully sung and recorded this repertoire. Christa Ludwig comes to mind. Hans Hotter comes to mind. Jon Vickers comes to mind.
The riches of the Lieder repertory should by no means be off-limits to stentorian voices like Kaufmann’s and there is plenty of evidence that other heroic voices have successfully sung and recorded this repertoire. Christa Ludwig comes to mind. Hans Hotter comes to mind. Jon Vickers comes to mind. But 51-year old Kaufman should heed the old Spanish saying “Zapatero a tus zapatos” (“Cobbler stick to your shoes”) and leave this repertory alone.
Selige Stunde: https://youtu.be/X3dkkWe7aow
Rafael de Acha