Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi
Die schöne Müllerin – Jonas Kaufmann & Helmut Deutsch
Jonas Kaufmann believes that “Die schöne Müllerin” is about an innocent lad who goes happily wandering until he falls in love with the Miller’s daughter, who dangles him about for a bit but then rejects him in favour of a ‘real’ man, a jolly green hunter. The thing is, Kaufmann never sounds other than a ‘real’ man, nor does he ever sound remotely self-pitying, so why ditch him and cause him to drown himself? Makes no sense.

As someone who frequently interviews singers I probably shouldn’t say this, but it’s not always a good thing for them to pontificate, since the reality of what they do when in front of that microphone or audience often confounds what they’ve said. The waspish among us might cite Kaufmann’s expressions of disdain for his ‘tenorhunk’ image whilst at the very same time being the subject of a six-page feature in “Elle”… but I digress. What we hear on this concert recording is a consistently beguiling, utterly melancholy and persuasively alluring performance – and it has virtually nothing of what the singer seems to think it has, namely the aura of a callow little fellow royally shafted by a jock and driven to drowning in the babbling brook.

You might think that Kaufmann’s approach would be the opposite of Matthias Goerne’s, who said “All this naïveté… finding love and all that, is not what the work is about… it is much more ‘Sturm und Drang’…” – the baritone’s disdain for the jolly-lad-whose-decline-we-trace interpretation is borne out in his intensely serious performance, but Kaufmann’s is really not that far distant from it. Neither baritone nor tenor opts for the sort of gemütlich style of narrative which mars many other versions.

Kaufmann’s is often a study in vocal beauty, with the final “das Wandern”, “das Wasser” and “die Steine” in each verse of the first song every bit as liquidly lyrical as his “O dolci mani” – how many miller lads have breathed ‘the millstones’ with so much poetic fervour? His singing of the first three little lines of ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ comes close to perfection, the expansive phrases taken in a single breath as Gerald Moore once wrote that they should be, echoing the gently flowing stream.

He is at his least persuasive in the faster songs, especially ‘Der Jaeger’ and ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ where the tone spreads a little and some of the higher notes are plaintive rather than full. Goerne was criticised for excessive slowness in the work, but in fact he took these songs at a cracking pace, unlike Kaufmann who seems to want to linger over them.

Kaufmann is most impressive in ‘Morgenstern’ – his “O lass mich nur von ferne stehn’… von ferne, ganz von ferne” must be one of the most irresistible pleas ever committed to disc – fat chance that any red-blooded miller’s lass would chuck this guy away in favour of some green-clad hunter, and you’ll have to forgive the linguistic pedant in me, but his voicing of the umlaut in the second “köpfchen” almost brought a tear to these pernickety old eyes.

In ‘Pause’ Kaufmann makes the phrase “Ich kann nichts mehr singen, mein Herz ist zu voll” really mean what it says – and as for “weinen ganz totenbleich”, in ‘Die böse Farbe,’ it sounds more like crazed revenge than tasteful romantic weeping. In ‘Trockne Blumen’ the detail given to the phrase “tote Liebe”, the naked emotion of “heraus, heraus” and the slight break in the voice at “Winter” are all emotionally gripping, and the final song is deeply moving.

It almost goes without saying that Helmut Deutsch is an ideal accompanist: he brings with him a lifetime’s experience and love for this work, and it is no exaggeration to say that not only does he seem to breathe with the singer, but he phrases the music like an echo of the voice, supportive yet characterful, and always in the service of the music. He is easily the equal of Christoph Eschenbach (with Goerne) and I can think of no higher praise.

Kaufmann’s legions of fans will be delighted with this recording, and it should sell in healthy numbers. The cover illustration seems to be asking us to consider “Which of us is the more beautiful – the portrait or the singer?” (tough choice) but the translations and interview notes are fine, as is the unexpectedly interference-free recording – I had anticipated at least a few impossible-to-erase coughs and shuffles, but clearly this audience was either utterly enraptured or completely sloshed – maybe both. Alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with Moore) on DG, Peter Schreier (with András Schiff) on Decca and Goerne (with Eschenbach) on Harmonia Mundi, Kaufmann’s is a version I would not want to be without.

 back top