The Times, February 21, 2014
Geoff Brown
Jonas Kaufmann/Helmut Deutsch: Winterreise
At least the protagonist of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise doesn’t have to contend with flooding. But in every other way fate hits him on the chin during his winter journey. His love is unrequited. The weather’s freezing, along with his tears. And what lies ahead? Only the graveyard, or the organ-grinder — the mysterious figure of the final song, grinding with numb fingers.

For tenor singers, and some baritones, the cycle marks the pinnacle of the lieder repertoire. It’s one climbed with trepidation even by Kaufmann, whose recording of the work coincides with an upcoming live performance at the Royal Opera House on April 6, also accompanied by Deutsch (already sold out). Securely enthroned as the world’s delight, especially in opera, the German tenor’s stage experience shows in his vivid emotions and searing fortissimos. Lieder skills come through even more strongly. Words are clearly enunciated. Dynamics are carefully graded, along with the arc of each song. There’s also his close rapport with the responsive Deutsch.

Every singer offers different timbres. Kaufmann’s voice comes with dark shadows and a slight edge, invaluable when bitterness swamps the poet: listen to him in Wasserflut spitting out the final line about his beloved’s house. He can also make his voice quiet and white as milk, perfect for purring over happy memories before the ructions start. Flexibility and textual clarity are the two assets that put this Winterreise in the top class.

His interpretation also gives us things to think about. Some of the notation isn’t what we expect — the result of consulting Schubert’s autograph score. Ears might also twitch over the treatment of individual words. In the booklet notes, singer and pianist both offer different interpretations of the final song, with Deutsch’s more benign than Kaufmann’s. But the way Kaufmann stresses the last word clearly suggests that organ-grinder’s grinding brings only pain, for eternity.

Sony’s studio recording, made over five days, surrounds both artists in a friendly acoustic. Possibly too much manicuring went on: compared with a live recording such as Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel’s from 2004, this Winterreise does seem a fraction airless. But then Goerne’s anguished syllables are murky beasts, while Kaufmann’s zing home every time. It’s your choice.

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