Opera News, September 2017
Fred Cohn
Jonas Kaufmann: Das Lied von der Erde
BECAUSE AMERICANS have seen little of Jonas Kaufmann lately, it might seem churlish to complain about getting too much of him. But that’s an unavoidable response to this version of Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler wrote the six movements of this symphony-in-song to be sung in alternation by two soloists—a tenor paired with a mezzo-soprano or, more rarely, a baritone. Not here: explaining in a booklet note that “during performances I get very jealous when listening to my baritone or mezzo colleagues,” Kaufmann sings the whole damn thing. “I was attracted by the idea of presenting these six songs … within a single overarching structure,” he writes.

He keeps his tone dark in the “tenor” numbers, emphasizing the famously baritonal cast of his instrument and making it clear that the songs emerge from a single throat. Still, at climaxes the sound acquires the glint of a tenor, allowing it to cut through the orchestral torrents. The infectious, gladiatorial swagger that Kaufmann brings to all three tenor numbers is close to ideal.

In the “low-voice” songs, however, the structure of Kaufmann’s voice keeps him from drawing out their full expressive potential, even if he can hit the notes. In key places, he’s limited by the lack of give at the bottom of his range. The plea for solace in “Der Einsame im Herbst” carries no weight; the horses’ hooves in “Von der Schönheit” have little impact in Kaufmann’s near-parlando growl. Most disappointing, the repeated “ewig”s at the close of “Der Abschied” are insufficiently resonant. The passage should cap the whole work and offer a glimpse of eternity; here, it’s woefully plain.

I would argue, too, that Mahler knew precisely what he was doing when he split his great work between two singers. The soloists in a conventional performance represent contrasting perspectives; in tandem, they suggest that Das Lied conjures the whole of human experience. When a single performer delivers the piece, it loses its universality.

Conductor Jonathan Nott’s reading is painted in bold primary colors; the disc left me marveling anew at the brilliance of Mahler’s orchestral invention. The Vienna Philharmonic sounds, well, like the Vienna Philharmonic—that is, pretty special.

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