Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco, 10 December 2009
by Tim Pfaff
Versatile top singer
Jonas Kaufmann is the tenor of the moment
Jonas Kaufmann, for my money the most compelling male opera singer working today, the tenor I've been waiting for since Jon Vickers retired, has, like the greatest of artists, made me work, too. I've never heard or seen a performance of his that didn't astound me, and this born stage animal with primal good looks has imprinted indelible images on my DVD-besotted imagination.

But I've had to work at his sound – not to appreciate it, not to be thrilled by it, but just to remember, later, what his voice sounded like. This has been disturbing. I had long subscribed to the dictum of the late great recording producer Walter Legge that "an immediately recognizable vocal timbre was the sine qua non of a great career." I even devised my own "Mary Had a Little Lamb" test. If I could imagine how that song would sound in the voice of a particular singer – Pavarotti, say, or Leonie Rysanek – unlikely to have recorded or even sung it, the standard was met. For me, Kaufmann's little lamb went oft astray.

Now I can't get his sound out of my mind. I'm perfectly willing to concede that I'm the jerk, and end the matter there. But I'm equally willing to believe that last July 5, singing Lohengrin for the first time in his native Munich, Kaufmann stepped from unmistakable magnificence into unalloyed greatness.

You don't have to venture farther than YouTube to decide for yourself. As captured on the outdoor screen the Bavarian State Opera set up for the ticketless, a T-shirt-clad Kaufmann – the realest Lohengrin I've ever seen or hope to, in a production that looked deep – stopped time and traffic with "In fernem Land." There was no mistaking that he was hearing all the way to the end of the piece before he launched its rapt first four notes. So their invocation of "a faraway land" was as magical as the mists burning off the mountaintop to reveal the Grail Castle. For those five minutes, Kaufmann held the whole world in his hands.

To see where that unforgettable performance came from, check out his latest Decca CD of German opera excerpts, recorded in Italy six months earlier. (In some editions it has a title, Sehnsucht; mine and others I've seen do not. If you see the image of Kaufmann superimposed on a famous mountaintop scene by painter Caspar David Friedrich, that's the one.) That last gasp of magic attainable only in a high-wire live performance may be missing, but the otherwise breath-taking music-making is all there, accompanied by no less than Claudio Abbado leading his ace Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

In addition to the two Lohengrin excerpts, there's more Wagner by way of two bits from Parsifal, which Kaufmann has already brought to the stage, and the "Wintersturme" from Die Walkure, which he has not. What the recording makes clear is that whenever Kaufmann thinks it's time, his Siegmund won't be premature. It's already a fully-fledged character here. In fact, it's not going too far to say that Kaufmann's Wagner singing is slightly more multi-dimensional that Abbado's Wagner conducting. Arrestingly lucid and even individual as it is, the conductor's contribution shows why he has given greater – I'd say unsurpassed – attention to Mahler and Bruckner.

The real revelations are the rare excerpts from Schubert operas, Fierrabras and Alfonso und Estrella, that both musicians have performed previously but not together. It's advocacy of the highest order for music that still needs it.

Florestan's scene from the beginning of Act II of Beethoven's Fidelio, the first thing I ever heard Kaufmann sing and that convinced me of the singer's importance immediately, has only grown since, and now in partnership with a Beethoven conductor of Abbado's stature. What now seems, sadly, like luxury casting, is Kaufmann as Mozart's Tamino, the role from The Magic Flute that was once a specialty of his. If there's a greater recording of "Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schoen," I haven't heard it, and the long scene from Tamino's trial is a masterpiece of characterization. We won't be hearing Mozart as towering as this for the imaginable future, making these two excerpts alone worth the price of admission.

As if to claim his artistic versatility as much as his mastery of his chosen repertoire, Kaufmann has also released a new studio recording of Schubert's Die Schoene Muellerin with his usual accompanist, Helmut Deutsch. I recommend not listening to it on the same day as to EMI's peerless recording with Ian Bostridge and Mitsuko Uchida, but Kaufmann's recording is "old-fashioned" in all the right ways, Schubert singing of the kind we used to expect from opera singers. And I can't get countless little phrases – "she likes green so much," say – out of my ears.

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