Limelight, 22 October, 2021
by Justine Nguyen
Liszt: Freudvoll Und Leidvoll (Jonas Kaufmann, Helmut Deutsch)
A stupendous new recording of Liszt's singular vocal music
Hot on the heels of their warmly received Lieder album, Selige Stunde, Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch have once again teamed up, this time to record songs by Liszt. Both have performed his works throughout their respective careers, and that experience and affinity with the composer is on ample display here.

Lieder fans are likely to have caught at least one instalment in Hyperion’s excellent series of Liszt’s complete songs, so won’t be too struck by how singular – and perhaps uneven – his vocal music can be at times. Kaufmann and Deutsch have handpicked some of his very best however, and there’s hardly a dull moment for the listener. Most of Liszt’s vocal music can be described as “big”, and much of the challenge for the singer lies in navigating the emotional and expressive extremes.

Kaufmann more than rises to the occasion, sounding in handsome, clarion voice. There’s much less of the preciousness that used to dog even his best Lieder recordings, and a willingness to simply let a phrase land without punching a specific word for impact or colouring a vowel just so. Kaufmann’s directness of expression is entirely appropriate for Liszt, and there’s a natural intensity to his approach here that ennobles.

Unsurprisingly, the piano line is often just as complex as the vocal part, and Deutsch once again proves himself an ideal partner for Kaufmann. His playing is powerful but never coarse, and he finds both the darkness and wit in these songs.

In the album’s opener, the great Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, Kaufmann perfectly captures the obsessive grief that plagues the song’s subject. With ringing tone, he is by turns hectoring, outraged, and full of recrimination, presenting not a lament but an accusation of wrongdoing.

Equally powerful are his interpretations of the Three Petrarch Sonnets, which are among some of Liszt’s very best songs. They require a vocal largesse, a long operatic line that never wavers in control or tone. This Kaufmann has in spades, and his joy in performing these passionate, exuberant songs is palpable. Benedetto sia ‘l giorno is imbued with a wealth of detail, while Pace non trovo is one anguished exclamation of desire. The final I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi is meanwhile surpassingly sweet, which sees Kaufmann express a love that verges on the reverent.

The titular Freudvoll und Leidvoll appears in both the second version of its first setting, and its second setting. Both are superbly done, the text an ambiguous interpretation of love. The former sees Kaufmann more anguished and introspective, while the latter is imbued with a higher degree of agitation thanks to its rippling piano part. Deutsch deftly ratchets up the tension in both.

Other highlights include an animated rendition of Die Drei Zigeuner, a wistful Es muss ein Wunderbares, and an utterly gorgeous Die stille Wasserrose.
At 52, one feels Kaufmann is only just coming into his prime as an interpreter of art song. How lucky we are.

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