IRR (International Record Review), October 2009
Hugh Canning
Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner: Jonas Kaufmann
It is a long time since such a glamorous voice has devoted an entire album to German operatic repertoire. Jonas Kaufmann, who turned 40 earlier this year, has been on the cusp of super-tenordom since his late twenties at the end of the 1990s, when he became a regular at Brian McMaster’s Edinburgh Festival, singing Schubert and Schumann Lieder, Mahler’s Song of the Earth, and the roles of Max, Flamand and Walther von Stolzing in complete concert performances of Weber’s Freischütz, Strauss’s Capriccio and Wagner’s Meistersinger. Since his debut at Covent Garden in 2004 as Ruggero in Puccini’s La rondine, he has been heard only in French (Don José) and Italian (Cavaradossi) repertoire and, as I write, is about to make his first appearances there as Verdi’s Don Carlos. His first Decca solo album (reviewed in February 2008) was a kind of calling-card, ranging widely between French, German and Italian repertoire — perhaps at his most thrilling as both Berlioz’s and Gounod’s Faust, and his most alluring in Stolzing’s Prize Song — but this new album focuses on his native repertoire, charting his progress from a Mozart-tenor (Tamino) to a lyric-heroic Wagnerian (Lohengrin, Siegmund and Parsifal).

He begins with excerpts from his newest stage role, Lohengrin: the Grail Narration and ‘Mein lieber Schwan’, once recital disc staples of leading tenors but rarely heard these days. The first thing that strikes the ear is the Italianate ardour of Kaufmann’s singing, as well as the burnished, dark, baritonal colour of his voice. What really takes the breath away, however, and marks him out as unique among the present generation of tenors, is his intelligent response to Wagner’s dynamics and his native savour of the German language. His diction has a chiselled, Wunderlich-like quality, the kind from which a native German could take down dictation, and he sings the opening phrase of ‘Mein lieber Schwan’ on an ethereal thread of tone. I haven’t heard lyrical Wagner singing like this in the theatre since the late lamented Gösta Winbergh and, on disc, you probably have to go back to Sândor Kónya to hear Kaufmann’s equal in beauty of tone.

What follows is even more remarkable: the two scenes from Die Zauberflöte are probably the finest on disc since Wunderlich’s unsurpassed complete recording (DG) under Karl Böhm, recorded the year before his tragic death in 1966. Kaufmann’s voice is by now darker and heavier than Wunderlich’s but there is the same marriage of word and tone, ardour of expression and profound understanding of the text. In the booklet interview with Roger Pines, Kaufmann reveals that the confrontation with the Priest in the Act I finale is ‘my favourite episode, really the key scene in the whole opera’. Here, he has the luxury of his former Zurich Opera colleague Michael Volle as the Priest, a chorus (from the Teatro Regio di Parma) and Claudio Abbado conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Decca is to be congratulated for pushing out the boat so extravagantly, but Kaufmann is worth it. One’s only regret is that this tantalizing glimpse of his Tamino may well be his last encounter with this music. One hopes he follows the example of Wolfgang Windgassen, who kept Tamino in his repertory long after he became the leading Wagner tenor of his generation, to maintain the flexibility and essential lyricism of his voice.

Florestan’s scena from the beginning of Act 2 of Fidelio is a foretaste of a complete recording Decca is planning to make at live concert performances at next year’s Lucerne Festival, when Abbado will conduct a cast headed by Kaufmann, Nina Stemme as Leonore and René Pape as Rocco. His crescendo on his despairing cry of ‘Gott!’ has the searing quality of a young Jon Vickers, but his voice is more limber for the jaunty poco allegro section of the aria. Again, it’s hard to think of a recent interpreter of this role who comes close to Kaufmann achievement here.

The two Schubert extracts are surprises: it’s good to have a souvenir of Kaufmann’s heroic Fierrabras — a role he sang in Zurich as a member of the ensemble — and the beautiful contrastingly lyrical aria from Alfonso und Estrella (Abbado suggested this number to Kaufmann — if it were piano-accompanied it would surely be accounted a Lieder masterpiece). The remaining extracts document Parsifal, Kaufmann’s first principal Wagner role — his wife Margarete Joswig sings Kundry’s brief line in the ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ scene — and his next, Siegmund, which he is scheduled to sing at the New York Met in 2012. It would be hard to imagine more wondrous moonlit-sounding ‘Winter Storms’ than Kaufmann delivers here, and his dark timbre suggests that the more heroic, baritonal Wagner roles may eventually lie within his grasp.

As for Parsifal, well, I doubt if a more alluring voice, ringing, Italianate — just as Wagner wished for — and exalted sound has been heard in this music for decades. It’s a real bonus for this superbly planned disc to have Abbado conducting the great, uplifting closing pages of Wagner’s great score (which takes up more of the final track than Kaufmann’s singing). Here, for once, is a recital programme with an artistic purpose, which shows all involved at their finest. This is surely one of the vocal records of the year, if not the decade.

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