is the highest profile treat to come my way so far during the Wagner
bicentenary year, and what a treat it is! Jonas Kaufmann has thus far been
fairly cautious in his forays into Wagner, but they have been thrillingly
exciting when they have come. His Wagner on disc has come through his
Lohengrin (Munich) and Siegmund (New York) on DVD, as well as some
tantalising passages from Walküre,Lohengrin and Parsifal on his Sehnsucht
album. His stage forays into Wagner have been restricted to the more lyrical
heroes that suit his voice type so well. Truth be told, if he wants to look
after his instrument then that’s probably where he should stay. However,
this album gives us some even more tantalising glimpses into some of those
heroes, as well as others that Kaufmann will probably never take further.
It’s a real treat for the ears.
Kaufmann’s Siegmund has turned heads,
not least my own in his recent recording with Gergiev, because he combines
smouldering romantic ardour with just the right element of heroism. He is
hugely exciting to listen to here. The dark, burnished quality to his voice
is one of the finest selling points of this disc as a whole, but it suits
Siegmund particularly well. The darkness of the voice makes Siegmund’s long
dark night of the soul sound all the more compelling, even dangerous. The
cries of Wälse! are thrilling, both in their length and in their tonal
colour. Furthermore, he sounds completely desperate, reminding us both that
this character is at his wits’ end and that Kaufmann is a great vocal actor.
The rest of the excerpt, after the Wälse section, sounds much more tender
and focused, which makes sense because he is singing about Sieglinde, after
all. It subsides gently towards its end, making this monologue a powerful
journey all by itself. However, he then carries Siegmund’s romantic ardour
into the Forest Murmurs, meaning that there is none of the sense of
innocence or excited discovery that should really characterise this extract.
It’s magnificently sung and it’s beautiful to listen to, but it’s not
Siegfried! However, the orchestral playing is fantastic here, all the solos
standing out brilliantly against the shimmering bed of the strings.
Rienzi’s prayer also begins with some beautiful orchestral playing, floating
in gently on the winds. Kaufmann’s singing is superb here too. He gets the
scale of the aria - if you can call it that - just right and it unfolds
majestically before your ears. In this he is undoubtedly helped by Runnicles
who paces it perfectly. He keeps the orchestra alongside Kaufmann so that he
never overwhelms him. Tannhäuser’s Rome narration is even finer. There is a
real sense of broken heroism to his portrayal of the knight, reminding us
again that this episode sees the character at breaking point. His weariness
at his unsuccessful pilgrimage is evident. At the same time, however, there
is a grandeur to it all, dignifying Tannhäuser’s suffering. He goes into an
almost half-voice when quoting the Pope’s words of condemnation, which is
great acting, but it does mean that the climax on “verdammt”is somewhat
lost. After that, however, a palpable sense of mania sets in when he begins
to fantasise about getting back into the Venusberg. The orchestra and
Runnicles seem to be egging him on all the time. It’s fantastic - for me the
finest thing on the disc.
Kaufmann’s Walter is lyrical and sweeping,
an interpretation that builds in waves. Just hearing the narration on its
own without the Prize Song is quite limiting - for that you’ll have to go to
his first solo recital disc - but it still sounds lovely. So does
Lohengrin’s Grail Narration, but the difference between this and the one he
gave us on Sehnsucht is that on this album we get the extended version with
the section telling us how he came to journey to Elsa’s aid. It hasn’t been
recorded often - only Leinsdorf, Barenboim and Bychkov include it in their
complete recordings - because it tends to hold up the action. It somewhat
dampens the climax after the revelation of his name, but it’s still
compelling to listen to because of the sense of growth with which Kaufmann
The other novelty is the Wesendonck Lieder, which are
normally assigned to a female voice. Kaufmann argues a convincing case that
they can suit the right tenor just as much. He shows the keen ear for detail
that you hear in his other lieder recitals, and he can inflect a phrase with
remarkable depth of meaning. My favourite was Im Treibhaus, which treads the
boundary between pain and beauty very capably, but the ardour you find in
the other songs is just as compelling.
For me, it’s two thumbs up for
this disc, then. I imagine that many of these pieces Kaufmann will never
touch again, but that doesn’t make the disc any less wonderful musically. It
stands as a reminder of the greatness of both the singer and the composer.
A high profile treat that reminds us of the greatness of both the singer
and the composer.