Great operatic voices do not always succeed in scaling down their power to convey the delicate subtlety of Lieder, but Jonas Kaufmann, arguably the current leading interpreter of the great Verdi and Wagner tenor roles, is at his best not in the grand dramatic moments (though those are often hair-raising) but in the phrases which require nuance and tenderness. Kaufmann is fortunate in that he has in Helmut Deutsch, the Gerald Moore of our time as his accompanist, and together they made this recital an evening of exciting and at times revelatory interpretation.
‘Erstes Grün’ was the perfect example of this partnership’s style; amongst Schumann’s songs of 1840, this one is surely the most heart-breaking (or, if you don’t warm to this composer, the most self-indulgent) with its melancholy G major – G minor combination and its almost breathless sense of hesitancy in the piano part. It often brings Schubert’s ‘Frühlingsglaube’ to mind, and Kaufmann sang it with just the right bittersweet edge to the tone, phrases such as ‘O wie mein Herz nach dir verlangt!’ achingly tender but not even approaching saccharine, with Deutsch’s playing suggesting all the youth’s longing. ‘Stille Tränen’ closed the short Kerner Lieder selection with a magisterial performance, the sonorous, rolling phrases revealing superb breath control and a glorious forte at ‘Schmerz.’
Dichterliebe showed Kaufmann’s skill in building a narrative, from the languid desire of the first song to the gloomy resignation of the last. The beauty of the singer’s tone and the elegance of the playing were even throughout, although there were times when one might have wanted a little more in the way of verbal emphasis. No complaints, however, about the emphasis given to the penultimate stanza of ‘Aus alten Märchen’ – everything one wants from Lieder singing was here, from expansive, emotionally charged phrasing to just enough pressure on words such as ‘erfreu’n’ (gladden) to create that sense of pleasure mixed with pain which is the hallmark of this composer’s art.
The recital’s second half began with a stunning performance of ‘Der Engel,’ the first of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder: they were intended to be sung by a woman, but Kaufmann made a strong case for masculine interpretation of these poems and Wagner’s tumultuous music. I know a few recorded versions where the singer takes the first two lines in a single phrase, but cannot recall hearing anyone do it in recital without obvious strain; Kaufmann not only achieved that but had sufficient power to give ‘Engeln’ its rightful emphasis. The grand operatic moments of ‘Stehe Still!’ and ‘Schmerzen’ were stirringly done, phrases such as ‘Wie ein stolzer Siegesheld!’ (as a proud conquering hero) thundering out into this tiny space.
Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets left us in no doubt that we were in the presence of greatness. ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno’ was ideally balanced between the lines which allowed Kaufmann to ‘let rip’ with his luscious italianità and those where he could display his exceptional skill at pianissimi; ‘Laura’ was not merely sung and praised but caressed, yet without undue sentimentality. That’s a tall order in this music, as is the avoidance of the temptation to swagger and bluster; instead of bull-dogging his way through, Kaufmann opts for an exceptional range of vocal colour and nuance, the central line ‘In questo stato son, Donna, per Voi’ aching with tremulous passion. Liszt’s virtuosic piano part held no terrors for Deutsch, who played it with almost insouciant skill.
As if to prove once more their ability to caress a phrase and produce soft, delicately spun lines, the single encore was a hushed, beautifully nuanced ‘Mondnacht’ which sent us all out longing to hear more. This recital was, unsurprisingly, the hottest ticket in (classical) town, so the fact that when Kaufmann next visits the Wigmore it will be possible for more than one recital to be scheduled is very good news.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.