Jonas Kaufmann impresses with his finely judged phrasing, psychological acuity and seductive swagger
Presto Classical, 11th October 2019
by Katherine Cooper
Recording of the Week, Jonas Kaufmann in Vienna
‘Mummy, I’ve heard this before!’ crowed my friend’s alarmingly astute small son as we settled in to road-test Jonas Kaufmann’s new album a few weeks ago and the distinctive strains of the German tenor ardently extolling the joys of Vienna filled their sitting-room. He has a point: in many respects Wien (out today on Sony) is a welcome sequel of sorts to Du bist die Welt für mich, the moreish collection of light music which Kaufmann released in 2014, and the opening number ‘Wien wird bei Nacht erst schön’ bears a striking similarity to his mother’s favourite track from that earlier album, ‘Grüß mir mein Wien’ from Kálmán’s Gräfin Mariza.

However, if I might disagree with our budding four-year-old critic for a moment, the first difference registers loud and clear after a few seconds: this time round Kaufmann has the luxury support of the Wiener Philharmoniker, and whilst the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin did a fine job five years ago, the gloss and glamour of the Viennese musicians’ sound really is one of the glories of this new disc. Violins shimmer and swoon with portamenti that hover on just the right side of tasteful, and Ádám Fischer (who seems to be enjoying a rather marvellous Indian summer at the moment with his ongoing Düsseldorf Mahler cycle and superb recent Beethoven set on Naxos) steers them with understated panache and imagination throughout.

With a programme dominated by Johann Strauss II & Co., the risk of waltz fatigue setting in early on in the proceedings is dangerously high, but the Hungarian conductor has such a way with rubato that even long strophic songs like Rudolf Sieczyński‘s ‘Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume’ feel like real unfolding narratives rather than just a perfunctory whirl around a gilded ballroom. Kaufmann’s subtle word-painting helps: in an insightful interview in the booklet he’s quizzed on the music’s Schubertian qualities, and he shades these texts with the same care he takes in his recordings of the great song-cycles, often drawing audible inspiration from the many and varied colours which Fischer summons from the orchestra.

Another delight is that nothing sounds too manicured or homogenous: after the full-fat appeal of the first few tracks, it’s a lovely surprise to hear orchestra and singer shift into bierkeller mode for Hans May’s hearty ‘Heut' ist der schönste Tag’ (the programme intersperses operetta favourites with popular Viennese stand-alone songs), and there’s no over-egging of the pudding in Hermann Leopoldi’s low-key little vignette ‘In einem kleinen Café in Hernals’ towards the end of the album.

Kaufmann keeps most of his operatic fire-power on ice for the Léhar and Strauss evergreens in which he’s joined by the zäftig-voiced soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who taps into the elegant sensuality which makes her one of the best young Marschallins around - the two have an easy chemistry which makes the couple’s discussion of the delights of an open marriage in ‘Wiener Blut’ and the erotic intrigue of the Watch Duet from Die Fledermaus seem genuinely, overtly sexy rather than well-mannered (check out Willis-Sørensen’s libidinous coloratura in the latter and you’ll see what I mean…).

Consuming the album in one sitting feels rather like indulging in a sumptuous dinner consisting entirely of desserts (no bad thing once in a while in my book), and after a main course of Sachertorte in the form of six Johann Strauss numbers we get a string of bitter sorbets, beginning with a remarkable, unexpectedly bleak aria from Kálmán’s Die Zirkusprinzessen in which a broken-hearted clown laments his calling - it’s essentially an Austro-Hungarian take on ‘Vesti la giubba’, and packs quite a punch after what’s gone before. And the final track, Georg Kreisler’s ‘Der Tod, das muss ein Wiener sein’ (‘Death must be a Viennese’), is a macabre little master-stroke: scored for voice and piano alone, it underlines the darkness lurking behind much of the fin de siècle hedonism elsewhere, and made me see several of the earlier tracks in quite a different light.

Overall verdict? Have some Andrews Liver Salts to hand, but indulge yourself. And if someone could invite Fischer to Vienna for New Year’s Day at some point, I’ll stand them a flute of champagne.

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