Jonas Kaufmann and German Critics
22 January 2009
(Olle from Sweden was in Berlin on January 19 and sent me his thoughts about the reviews for the concert. " I have been as baffled and angered as yourself and your readers reading the German critics or rather noting their non-observance of the Berlin concert. I didn't know whether to laugh or be angry. Your readers have reacted and expressed their reactions well. I had mine and formulated some thoughts .....")
Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn would shed bitter tears if they were able to read the musico-vocal criticism of their fellow countrymen today, such as exemplified in these pages. Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine would join them. I don’t doubt it for a moment.

The reference to these names is not fortuitous. The object of criticism – tenor Jonas Kaufmann – is the reincarnation of a man from the 1820’s or -30’s. And I don’t refer to “romantic” looks or “romantic” curls, but to a “way of being” far removed from today’s and one infinitely more cultivated. The word “culture” defines Jonas Kaufmann better than anything else. He happens to be exceptionally intelligent, as demonstrated in conversations and interviews. He is as versed in languages as only very musical persons tend to be. And he is consequently exceptionally musical. In most performances maybe more so than any of his conductors.

This singer is met by too many Germans today with little understanding. He is often judged with ignorance. Or from instinct, which is even worse. Even object of what seems to be personal hate. As a foreign observer I cannot help feeling that “shame” may play a role. The reaction so common in “professionals” who failed to notice the genius living next door and had to be told what was exceptional by foreigners. Unfortunately the feeling of shame often takes the most unfortunate expressions.

Persons who are both intelligent and musical and who have a cultivated singing voice can never sing badly. Jonas Kaufmann happens to be both and also to have a voice of uncommonly attractive timbre (admittedly a matter of taste). Vocal professionals more knowledgeable than myself always make a distinction between “good voices” and “good singers” and never fail to make clear that they absolutely prefer the latter. As a consequence there are many professional singing artists with beautiful voices who are uninteresting or even bad singers. To me Jonas Kaufmann is a tenor with an uncommonly good voice, but he is an exceptional singer.

Many critics react negatively to the baritonal quality of the timbre, which is hard to explain. There were always such voices. Many of the foremost Wagnerian tenors started as baritones. The best of them, Lauritz Melchior, said that good Wagnerian tenor voices had to be developed from below. At the time of Rossini “il baritenore” was a separate voice category. Had Jonas Kaufmann lived then and there - and he would have fit in exceptionally well - he would no doubt have been defined as a baritenore.

Still, what characterizes Jonas Kaufmann’s singing more than anything else is his respect for a great vocal tradition. He is humble enough to accept to learn from his predecessors. Also from those whom he never experienced personally, but whose singing has been preserved by the gramophone or described by their contemporaries. At times I’m reminded of the singing of one of the eternal myths - Mattia Battistini - a baritone with an almost tenoral extension. For their common love of dynamic variety, incredible breath control and refined colouring of words and phrases. Interestingly enough it’s in the most traditional repertory that I’m reminded of Jonas’ unique talent. There are in Verdi’s Requiem or in the tenor solo of Beethoven’s 9th moments of almost belcanto refinement that I never heard before (the purely vocal perfection of our own Jussi - I’m a Swede - remains unique, of course).

I have come to understand that the purely aesthetic and intentionally anti-naturalistic qualities of Jonas’ singing is what vexes his detractors most. They believe in a continued positive development also in the art of singing.

A way of singing of the 19th century repertory that they can identify as contemporary and recognize. Our convictions will never meet.

But what grieves me most, perhaps, is that German critics don’t seem to have noted that they have in Jonas Kaufmann one of the best interpreters in recorded memory of their own very special vocal patrimony – the German Lied. His way of interpreting the texts and the music of the geniuses named in the first paragraph doesn’t fear comparison from a great 20th century tradition. That´s also one of the reasons why their celestial tears are today so bitter.

Article and photo © Olle

 back top