Edinburgh International Festival – Jonas Kaufmann & Helmut Deutsch

Die Bürgschaft, D246
Four Slovakian Folk Songs
Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22
Schlicte Weisen, Op.21
Sehnsucht; Nachtgang; Freundliche Vision; Ich liebe dich
Vier Lieder, Op.27

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) & Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 24 August, 2006
Venue: The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

“Ich liebe dich”, one of the Richard Strauss settings in this recital, might well serve to describe Jonas Kaufmann’s relationship with his adoring Edinburgh audience. Teamed with Helmut Deutsch, the finest pianist-as-partner imaginable, this was always likely to be one of the Festival’s highlights, and, at moments, it threatened to turn into a love-fest. Whatever the minor reservations, the audience’s hothouse expectations were rewarded with a remarkable recital. Kaufmann has charisma in spades – he could give a Lieder recital in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall and still have the audience eating out of his hand.

Schubert’s extended melodrama “Die Bürgschaft” (The Bond), a tale of derring-do, extols the Enlightenment virtues of loyalty triumphing over tyranny – shades of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” – and it received a vibrant, palpitating performance from Kaufmann, visibly living and acting out every twist of Schiller’s unlikely tale. The ‘bond’ of the title concerns a friend standing in for a man condemned to death by a tyrant who eventually is himself so affected by the bond of friendship between the two men that he commutes the sentence and asks to join the club as the third member. Kaufmann, singing from memory, gave it the works, a larger-than-life quasi-operatic performance that made for edge-of-seat listening.

Kaufmann’s voice has developed and now has a baritonal quality. At the top of his register when singing softy he sometimes seems to adopt something close to sprechtstimme and if one craved a more perfect legato, this was spellbinding singing nonetheless. Kaufmann was hugely aided by Deutsch’s wholly idiomatic contribution – there is a moment just before the Ballad’s end (“Kill me, hangman” he cried, “It is I, for whom he stood surety”) when the piano evokes the hushed shock of the crowd with the simplest descending octaves; here and in the postlude, Deutsch achieved a quintessential simplicity characteristic only of the greatest artists.

Bartók’s Four Slovakian Folk Songs, a spin-off from Bartók and Kodály’s trips collecting folksongs, emanate from a district in Hungary that was predominantly Slovak. Kaufmann sung them in German although the texts gave them in Hungarian. With one exception they inhabit a melancholy world of loss and death, the most memorable being “Message” in which a pigeon tells the girl of her young man’s death in a distant country.

Dating from 1940, Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo are more declamatory (as with Wolf’s Michelangelo settings) and this suited Kaufmann’s operatic tendencies. However, they were originally conceived for the lighter voice of Peter Pears and sometimes Kaufmann’s baritone was too a little heavy – but there were compensations in the darkness at the music’s heart. Sonnet XXX (“With your lovely eyes I see a sweet light, that yet with my blind ones I cannot see”) is supremely beautiful with its long arching melody and it received a mesmerising performance.

After the interval came contrasting groups of Richard Strauss Lieder reflecting this duo’s latest recording for Harmonia Mundi. First, a group of five songs written between 1889 and 1900 of which the initial song, “All mein Gedanken” (All my thoughts), is in Strauss’s lightest vein. More interesting musically were the next group, of four separate songs, which included “Nachtgang” (prosaically translated as ‘A Walk at Night’) – shades of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – and “Sehnsucht” (Longing) which is by far the most adventurous and, harmonically, least obviously Straussian. The concluding “Ich liebe dich” (I love you) received a full frontal assault.

Lastly, some of Strauss’s most famous songs, the set of four that he wrote as a wedding present for Pauline in 1894, including “Morgen” (Tomorrow) and “Cäcilie” (amusingly translated in the programme note as ‘Cecily’ rather than the more usual ‘Cecilia’). Both “Ruhe, meine Seele” (Peace, my soul) and “Cäcilie” received full operatic treatment with ringing top notes. By contrast “Morgen” was bleached out and appropriately awe-struck with simply fabulous accompaniment from Deutsch.

A quite wonderful recital, then, albeit one leaving a sense that Kaufmann is a more natural inhabitant of the opera house than the Lieder room.

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