The Times, February 19, 2010
Geoff Brown
Jonas Kaufmann: Die schöne Müllerin
The tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the pianist Helmut Deutsch are the latest to test themselves against Schubert’s song cycle
A winsomely innocent young man finds and loves “the beautiful miller girl”. The girl’s not too keen, and loses what faint interest she possessed when a hunter rides up, vibrant in green. Hopes dashed, the spurned youth drowns himself in the stream that rushes and bubbles at every step of the narrative.

That, bluntly, is the story of Schubert’s great song cycle to poems by Wilhelm Müller, Die schöne Müllerin. But bluntness won’t do in a performance. Every nuance of the human voice, and the piano, is needed to embody the depths of poignancy and bitter despair within the words and music. The tenor Jonas Kaufmann, glorious in opera, and the pianist Helmut Deutsch are the latest to put themselves to the test, in a performance bravely captured live in July in Munich before an enthralled audience.

The pair pass with high honours, though champions of extreme vocal perfection might not like every one of Kaufmann’s notes. If Schubert’s young man is in a rush, as in Ungeduld, Kaufmann rushes too, blurring articulation. Yet those gabbled phrases, and some slightly queasy top notes, find their place in an interpretation solidly centred on a simple and powerful emotional arc. Unlike some singers, Kaufman doesn’t darken the narrative from the beginning, a decision that only enlarges the devastation wrought by the hero’s journey from bliss to despair.

Deutsch plays his music equally straightforwardly, and when he is at his most forthright the recording balance places Kaufmann slightly in the shade: a small defect. But in quieter moments, the artists mingle with ease and spray the air with wonders.

But the biggest blessing remains the performance’s single-minded trajectory as joy fades and despair grows until the hero finds rest in his watery grave. No applause, luckily, from the recording’s audience: after the last harrowing song, that would feel like a sock on the jaw.

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