The Times, March 9, 2012
Richard Morrison
Konzert, Birmingham, 7. März 2012
CBSO/Kaufmann at Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Hats off to Jonas Kaufmann for integrity. The world’s hottest tenor could have come to Birmingham with a programme of popular arias. No one would have complained. But Kaufmann has a brain and sensibility to match that unique voice, which can be dark and baritonal on half-throttle, or glinting and incisive when let off the leash. So before launching into six crowd-pleasing Strauss songs he dug out something rare and mesmerising, if not always for the right reasons: an orchestral version of Mahler’s sorrowful Kindertotenlieder transposed up a minor third (apparently with the composer’s blessing) to bring it into tenor territory.

Kaufmann’s approach to these “songs on the death of children” was properly serious and subdued. Much was sung in a husky and dangerously unvarnished half-voice. His control of line, especially high up, was superb. And his response to this unredeemably morbid poetry had a theatrical potency.

Yet there were tensions and uncertainties. Though he had his music on a stand, the soloist appeared to go slightly off-piste at one point and there were several moments when Andris Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra did not seem completely on his wavelength, or indeed each other’s. Of course it cannot be easy to play Mahler’s twisty, exposed wind solos three semitones higher than they were written. And I daresay that the interpretation will tighten as Kaufmann, Nelsons and the CBSO take the show round Europe.

What is already clear is that this is a tenor at the peak of his expressive powers. And though there were slight ensemble mishaps in the Strauss songs too, they did give him the chance to uncork his full power, especially with a blazing top B to finish Cäcilie. For me, though, the highlight was the gentlest song, Morgen!, where Kaufmann’s honeyed tone was more than complemented by Laurence Jackson’s ravishing fiddle solo. Pity the tenor did not acknowledge the violinist until the third curtain call.

Nelsons can be thrilling in early 20th-century repertoire. But his handling of Debussy’s La mer and, particularly, the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Britten’s Peter Grimes seemed glib: concerned more with making a big splash than plumbing the mysteries of the deep. The young Latvian is hugely impressive, but he is also still on a steep learning curve.


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