|The Guardian-Observer, 11 March 2012
Konzert, Birmingham, 7. März 2012
Jonas Kaufmann/CBSO/Nelsons – review
‘Superlative control’: Jonas Kaufmann savours the applause at Symphony Hall,
Birmingham. Photograph: Andrew Fox for the Observer
momentous times, afflicting heart and mind," runs a turbulent line in one of
the set of songs Richard Strauss gave his wife as a wedding present in 1894.
As marital gifts go, it is not without prenuptial ambiguity. The composer no
doubt suspected that he would be henpecked by his bride Pauline de Ahna, a
soprano of robust character whose fetish for cleanliness – wielding her
duster in other people's houses too if necessary – would now be recognised
as a severe case of OCD. She was a trial and a scourge, but also a glorious
inspiration until Strauss's death more than half a century later.
This particular song, "Ruhe, meine Seele!" (Rest my soul!), opens on a
discord and swells into a tempestuous dark night of the soul before finding
uneasy calm. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who attracted a capacity
audience from far and wide for his Birmingham debut with the CBSO and
conductor Andris Nelsons, poured his energies into this tiny psychodrama and
delivered liquid gold – the only way, if hyperbolic, to describe the
glistening, superlatively controlled, dark-hued tone which has made him an
international superstar. It helps that he looks like John the Baptist on a
good day, but I refer you to the picture above for further evidence.
Kaufmann's versatility is his hallmark. He is one of the few tenors who
approaches Plácido Domingo in range and artistic curiosity. Unparalleled in
German romantic repertoire – he sang Wagner's Lohengrin under Nelsons' baton
in Bayreuth in 2010, which clinched their professional friendship – Kaufmann
excels in Italian and French opera too. Simultaneously with this CBSO tour
to Paris, Vienna and various cities in Germany, Kaufmann is busy brushing up
his flamenco for Don José in Salzburg's new Carmen with Simon Rattle at the
end of the month.
But Kaufmann is Munich-born like Strauss himself,
and these Op 27 songs released in the singer a particularly joyful
expressive ease. Originally scored for voice and piano, they retained a
place in Strauss's heart. Near the end of his life, in 1948 aged 84, he
produced an orchestral version. The rapturous "Cäcilie" is a simple
outpouring of domestic bliss – you sense Pauline's presence in its talk of
"cuddling and chatting", though no mention of mops. "Heimliche Aufforderung"
(Secret Invitation), about private intimacy, and "Morgen" (Tomorrow) are
more covert in their apparent ecstasy.
There could be a reason for
mystery. The Scottish-German poet of both these, John Henry Mackay
(1864-1933), was a well-known anarchist and homosexual whose writings were
later burned by the Nazis. Strauss, so often accused of dubious and
conservative politics, would certainly have known something of this when he
chose to set these poems, even though Mackay's more contentious years around
the boy-bars of Berlin, when he wrote a pederastic novel under the pseudonym
Sagitta, were yet to come. Strauss did not always parade his liberal
sympathies but his generous music surely proclaims them. An enthusiastic
audience cheered Kaufmann, eliciting "Zueignung" as an encore.
everything was so convincing in Mahler's Kindertotenlieder – songs on the
death of children. The subject matter is almost untouchable, not least since
Mahler's own daughter died three years after he had written the cycle.
Usually sung by a mezzo, Kaufmann gave what was (probably) the first UK
performance of a version for high voice, published by Universal Edition and
condoned by Mahler but rarely heard. The opening bars immediately triggered
an aural shock, not least because the whole work has been transposed up a
This no doubt added difficulties for the prominent
woodwind, whose instruments are less adaptable than strings to certain
awkward keys. The expert CBSO players overcame all hurdles, yet despite
moments of lucid, shattering beauty, a sense of uncertainty prevailed in
singer and orchestra alike. By their nature these texts require an inward,
introspective delivery, which Kaufmann gave. In their occasional brokenness,
his incredible head-voice pianissimos reflected truthfully the sorrowful
mood of Rückert's poems. The only major-key song, "Oft denk' ich, sie sind
nur ausgegangen" (Often I think they have only stepped out), shone with
All told, this was a stormy programme, from the
psychological tempests of Strauss and Mahler to the sea-tossed musical
journey from the Suffolk coast to the English Channel of the rest of the
concert. Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
opened the evening with salty rigour and a winningly elegiac viola solo
(Christopher Yates). Debussy's La mer, which he completed in Eastbourne on a
tryst with his mistress while engaged in his own force nine marital
hurricane, ended the concert.