Musicweb International, 12/2010
Ralph Moore

Despite my impatience to see Jonas Kaufmann move into the great Wagner roles, I realise that to rush that process could be fatal to one of the few very great voices singing today. I am delighted by his evident intention to keep his voice still light and flexible enough to sing Mozart, even at this stage of his career. While I do not find that he has the sweetness and "ping" ideal for Puccini, he is very fine in Verdi and the movement into verismo is not too great a leap. Kaufmann is now forty; his powerful, smoky voice is now presumably at its peak, and while it will never have the juicy resonance of Corelli he is a superb vocal actor who throws himself into his characterisations. He utterly convinces the listener of the sincerity with which he inhabits his roles. There is a plaintive as well as a heroic quality to his singing. He has virtually eliminated the glottal, "gulping" tic - presumably injected for emotive effect - which was beginning to infect his vocal production. He now sings "straight", relying on tonal colouring and superb control of dynamics. The top B in his "Come un bel dì di maggio" is appropriately climactic. He then moves straight into a deeply affecting account of that wonderfully melancholy aria "È la solita storia", using a mesmeric half voice. It is that combination of baritonal heft and restrained delicacy which he can command that makes his voice so moving. He can scale his voice right down to express tenderness then deliver thrilling top As and Bs. It is such a pleasure to hear a singer begin so many arias with due attention to dynamics and subtlety rather than go straight for the "can belto shock and awe" attack. Thus "Dai campi" builds properly to the climactic "a meditar" and is all the better for the contrast Kaufmann engineers between it and the meditative, almost tentative, opening phrases. Similarly, "Giunto sul passo estremo" is a genuine psychological portrait. I love the way Kaufmann gives the best possible advocacy to Boito's oft-derided music which I so enjoy. He even shows his command of the fabled "messa di voce" (producing a smooth, swelling crescendo and then a diminuendo on one note) - a bel canto technique almost lost amongst modern singers.

The opening track is a surprise: a virtually unknown aria from Zandonai's "Giulietta e Romeo", a choice typical of a novel, artfully structured programme designed to provide maximum pleasure without recourse to too many old chestnuts. That said, I suppose no verismo recital would be complete without "Vesti la giubba", especially when it is delivered as it is here with such passion and artistry. Another novelty is an aria from Ponchielli's "I Lituani"; not especially original as music, perhaps, but a pleasure to hear. I am also delighted to see Kaufmann's inclusion of Refice's exquisite song "Ombra di nube", which was made into an immortal gramophone classic by the great Claudia Muzio in one of my favourite recordings. Kaufmann cannot erase memories of her vulnerable, otherworldly poise, but he sings that lovely music with real Innigkeit and actually adopts a "new" voice of incomparable tenderness for such a large instrument. With "Cielo e mar" we are back on more familiar Ponchielli territory, and once again Kaufmann rethinks the aria to make it a lesson in restrained, poetic power rather than the usual bombastic bawl. One gem follows another and I am amazed by the judicious admixture of intelligence and passion that Kaufmann brings to all the music he sings here. The generous recital concludes with a real belter: the final duet from "Andrea Chénier", when the lovers declare their undying devotion as they are trundled off to the guillotine. Kaufmann and guest soprano Eva-Marie Westbroek cannot rival Corelli and Stella, or Gigli and Caniglia for that matter, for sheer animal abandon, but it's still a thrilling ride.

Pappano's accompaniments are simply superb: great, throbbing waves of sound from the reinvigorated Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

There are still, perhaps, individual performances of certain arias which I favour over Kaufmann's interpretations here but as a recital disc taken as a whole, it is hard to think of another superior in vocal brilliance, interpretative depth and mature artistry. Kaufmann's voice is virtually - and uncannily at times - indistinguishable from Vickers', who was also criticised for lacking Italianatà but still carried the day by dint of conviction and sheer force of personality. But I also think that stylistically Kaufmann is just right for this music even if the vocal make-up lacks that Italianate squillo. He just gets better and better. This definitely goes alongside the "Verdi Arias" disc on Delos by Sondra Radvanovsky (yet to appear) as my two "Discs of the Year": two superlative recitals by the two best Verdi voices by far to emerge for a generation.


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