Opera UK, November 2009
Jonas Kaufmann — Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner
Arias and scenes from Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio, Fierrabras, Alfonso und Estrella, Lohengrin and Parsifal. With Margarete Joswig (mezzo-soprano), Michael Volle (bass-baritone), Chorus of the Teatro Regio, Parma, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, c. Claudio Abbado. Decca 478 1463 (one CD)
Disc of the month
Too good to be true: this was my first response to Jonas Kaufmann’s new disc. But each re-listening has brought new things to praise, new confirmation of the singer’s extraordinary gifts. This all German operatic selection, his second solo CD for Decca, bears an even clearer personal stamp than the French-German-Italian Romantic Arias, his first.

Schubert’s Alfonso apart, all the roles represented here belong to his stage repertory. The interleaving of arias with longer Zauberflöte and Parsifal excerpts, in totality a kind of disquisition on the German tenor across a century of German opera, displays not just Kaufmann’s voice in various guises, all of them pleasing, at times thrilling to encounter, but a speaking communication of his vitality as a theatrical animal.

And indeed, each performance makes it abundantly clear that an artist of uncommon conviction is at work therein. Kaufmann’s German enunciation, in which naturalness, direct eloquence and a Lieder-singer’s command of nuance are blended, plays a large part in the process. So does his determination—encouraged and supported with wonderfully selfless devotion and mastery by Abbado and his orchestra—to construct a distinct dramatic scene out of each item. As a result, the programme rewards all-the-way-through listening in a way few recital discs I know can match. What’s more, one finds oneself responding to the works themselves, and to Kaufmann’s dramatic intelligence in interpreting them, quite as much as to his remarkable vocal instrument.

Details of execution may be argued over: the overall artistic intention and accomplishment prompt only admiration. An example: on repeated listening (reinforced by spot-check comparisons with the relevant Lohengrin recordings of Windgassen, Jerusalem and Heppner) I found the dream-like, almost otherworldly opening of this ‘In fernem Land’ narration raising questions rather than answers. (Such as: why on earth should Lohengrin be feeling dreamy at this peculiarly public and confrontational moment in the opera?) Yet so poetic is the rapt effect, so finely sustained, that each time the questioning came only after the listening.

Likewise, I can imagine some people hearing this flesh-and-muscle tenor— noticeably matured in timbre since Capriccio’s complete Marschner Vampyr set of 2001 and Philips’s Weber Oberon of 2005— as now too bulky for Tamino. Myself, I don’t at all: in the Portrait aria I marvel at its unfailing ability to move with manly agility across the wide compass of the vocal line—its command of ornamental turns, crushed notes and flourishes athletically limber here and, indeed, all the way through the programme — and, in the long dialogue with Michael Volle’s (mellifluously bland) Speaker, at the way tonal weight infuses Tamino’s exchanges with youthful passion and urgency.
Florestan, Parsifal and, in a Liedersinger’s account of ‘Winterstürme’, Siegmund come across in three dimensions; for me, though, the Schubert arias are the most striking offerings. Kaufmann’s virtuoso delivery of the Fierrabras recitative and aria, not least in terms of confidently managing its killingly high tessitura, will surprise no one already familiar with his fearlessly brilliant account of Hüon’s ‘From boyhood trained’ in the Oberon recording—but the intensity of expression made me want to re-think my regretful past dismissal of the opera as a whole. (Maybe Abbado will now re-record it, this time with Kaufmann?)

The disc draws attention to the music drama as much as to its performer. At the same time, it supplies powerful new evidence of his possessing an altogether exceptional instrument, not least for its combination of crypto-baritonal colouring and a lyric tenor’s malleability with high notes. In my inner ear it sets up constant echoes of two postwar 20th-century tenors previously celebrated in similar repertory (though both had bigger voices that were considerably less easy, less ringing on top): Ramón Vinay and, even more, Jon Vickers. Theirs were magnificent voices, but could they ever be called beautiful? And can Kaufmann’s?

Minor criticisms: Decca’s recording, though fortunately not, as so often these days, wrapped in recording-studio cotton wool, fails to put across a convincing impression of vocal size. (Listen to Vickers’s first EMI Florestan, then Kaufmann’s for Decca, and note the difference.) In the Parsifal finale the Parma chorus is word-blurry, its soprano line a touch insecure.
Major conclusion: this is one of the most rewarding operasinger CDs to have come my way for years.

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