The enthusiastic advertising for this concert announced that the songs of Mahler and Strauss represent “the music [Jonas Kaufmann] sings better than anyone alive.” That’s a bit cheeky, since there are greater Mahler interpreters around today, but it’s closer to the truth when it comes to Strauss, given that very few singers can equal the fervour and rapt commitment of this tenor’s way with these lush pieces. Of course the ardour of his fans is almost as passionate, and it seemed that le tout Londres had decamped to Birmingham to worship at his feet.
We ought to be brave enough to tackle the hour and twenty minutes’ journey there more often – it’s a fabulous concert hall, with an acoustic to equal the finest, at the centre of a city where people are friendly, the much-nicer-than-either-of-the-Westfields shopping centre is free of cacophonous piped muzak, and the architecture and restaurants remind you of Charlotte NC without the humidity. But enough of land-locked Birmingham, and on to “the lonely sea and the sky” which framed our hero’s performance.
“To think of Crabbe is to think about England” as Forster wrote, and Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes received a poetic performance from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its hot young conductor – more of a showman than I’d thought, and willing to challenge the ‘limpid, lyrical’ style of so much Britten interpretation. There was plenty of heft in the storm scenes to contrast with the rather brittle delicacy of the quieter passages, and Britten’s desire to express his awareness of what he called “the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends on the sea” was strongly evoked.
No such harsh reality infuses Debussy’s La mer, since in his view, the memories of the sea are worth more than the reality, whose beauty he found “weighs down thought too heavily.” This was a no-holds-barred performance, the final movement as suggestive of storms at sea as anything set in Suffolk.
Kindertotenlieder is often regarded as too sad to sing (but not often by singers) and it held no terrors for Kaufmann, who phrased it tenderly if at times somewhat effortfully, the very high passages such as ‘sind es dir nur Sterne’ using perhaps a little too much head voice. His interpretative skill is unquestionable, and of course his German is a joy in every syllable, but for me his Kindertotenlieder lacks the harrowing anguish and raw fervour brought to it by the greatest interpreters, although ‘O Augen’ and ‘Sie ruh’n als wie in der Mutter Haus’ almost succeeded in squeezing a tear from this cynical eye. Others had no such reluctance, however, and it’s been a while since I’ve sat amidst so much barely muffled weeping.
There were times in the Mahler when the orchestra seemed in danger of drowning out the singer, so unbridled was the drive with which Andris Nelsons inspired the players, but when it came to the Strauss there was much more of a sense of equal enjoyment. ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ is clearly Kaufmann’s favourite opener, since he also begins his current Lieder programme with it, and you can hear why. From the rousing ‘Auf!’ to the intensely passionate ‘O komm, du wünderbare, ersehnte Nacht!’ this was great singing by anyone’s measure, but even that paled in comparison with the final lines of ‘Ich trage meine Minne vor Wonne stumm’ – so simple, yet so utterly engaging.
Another singer once said that he’d spent a long time listening to Janet Baker’s performance of ‘Morgen’ so as to pinpoint the moment when her voice blended in to Gerald Moore’s piano; he would have loved Kaufmann’s singing here, the first line emerging from the orchestra with the fluid quality of natural growth, and the final phrase uttered with beguiling intimacy. Some of the audience – understandably – broke into applause after this, but there was more to come, in the shape of an exuberant ‘Cäcilie’ and, as an encore, a fervent ‘Zueignung,’ the final ‘Habe Dank!’ ringing out with heroic splendour.
Further details of Birmingham Symphony Hall concerts can be found at Symphony Hall