The Guardian-Observer, 11 March 2012
Fiona Maddocks
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
"These are 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.

Not 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 minor third.

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 terrible grief.

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.


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