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Recordings

Kaufmann Wagner [Cover art courtesy of Decca Classics]
16 Apr 2013

Kaufmann Wagner

The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.

Kaufmann Wagner

Jonas Kaufmann; Deutsches Oper chorus and orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles.

Decca Classics 0289 478 5189 9 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

The music continues to grow and evolve around and through those strophes, and for those who know the scores, cutting them off is always a frustration. But it is no longer viable to go into a studio with a full cast, orchestra and chorus to record whole music-dramas in more or less ideal circumstances. There are recordings of full, live performances, but these bring in other problems. Suppose a retake is desirable, as in the recent Salzburg performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, released on video anyway, which (adding insult) was set in a recording studio and yet, this being in fact a live opera house performance, necessarily permitted errors to pass unretaken.

So when a new tenor, a budding Wagner specialist, comes hallo-ing down the road, and his recording company wishes to push him—well, why not? We seem to be living (for the first time in my life) through a happy spate of talented heroic tenor voices and a dearth of sopranos to match them, weight for weight. Decca is betting that Jonas Kaufmann has the popular appeal to sell discs containing Wagner snipped from context, numbers that are more “narrations” than traditional “opera songs.” And who, at the moment, is more appealing in this music than he? One yearns to hear this disc, one is amply rewarded for listening closely—the frustration sets in on repeated hearings, as each cut ends barbarously in mid-melodious flow, like gold snatched by stealth from the wounded Rhine while, in memory, the score continues to more proper climaxes.

After a cautious apprenticeship in the better, smaller Central European opera houses, with an endearing willingness to shine in operas less than frequently revived (Humperdinck’s Königskinder and Schubert’s Fierrabras, for example, both available on DVD), this handsome fellow, a first-rate and thoughtful actor—an explosive Don José, an ardent Des Grieux, a passionate Lohengrin, a desperate Siegmund, a puzzled and, later, anguished, duty-bound Parsifal—shows no sign of jumping the rails, of doing too much too soon, of losing his edge, relaxing his dedication. The singing voice matures as the body does, and at the same pace; singers are punished if they are incautious but they neglect both art and career if they do not strive ambitiously forward. Kaufmann is so careful that the sudden fire of some of his operatic performances can shock: Don José was a coiled spring, exploding; Parsifal a puzzled boy turned abruptly gray and haggard.

The arrival of Kaufmann’s new Wagner disc sent me running back to the unforgotten pleasures of his earlier disc, German Arias, of 2009, under Claudio Abbado. Decca seems eager to forget this earlier recording for reasons unclear; it is barely mentioned (under the title Sehnsucht) on Kaufmann’s official Web site. The repertory with Abbado was more “traditional” in its choice of snippets—besides Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert arias, there were “Winterstürme” from Walküre and narratives from Lohengrin and Parsifal—roles he was about to take on and has now performed to wide acclaim. Perhaps he feels his earlier “takes” were naïve? They are certainly very lovely. The voice was perceptively lighter, freer in its upper limits, the phrasing quite as exquisite as it remains—for a major voice in mid-career, three years is not a very long time. On the new disc, under Donald Runnicles, he makes a point of avoiding all the earlier rep except “In fernem Land,” and he makes a point in that selection of singing an earlier two-verse version of the narration that Wagner halved for the final edition we usually hear today.

Wagner roles come in three sizes: romantic (available to ordinary tenors—Froh and Erik are examples), loud (available to romantic singers who can manage, say, Otello: Lohengrin and Walther are in this class), and heroic (if you haven’t got the goods, don’t try this except in a small well-mic’d studio in East Berlin: Tannhäuser comes to mind). Kaufmann did not seem to have Siegfried or Tristan in his future as recently as the Abbado album, but he is gaining strength. Successful performances in a house the size of the Metropolitan as Siegmund and Parsifal, which fall into the second category, have perhaps given him confidence in his strength, endurance and technique.

Kaufmann’s “baritonal” quality has been controversial, and as with many other tenors who trained as baritones (Caruso, Melchior, Bergonzi, Domingo), he lacks the easy ringing high notes and the desperate-seeming quality of reaching for high C’s and beyond with an almost orgasmic youthful impulsion. The voice is trending to darker qualities, and while he has attained them with an admirably schooled and calculated strategy, he may be obliged to evade them in time. This will cause dissatisfaction in some quarters, among the tenor obsessed, but as the list of his predecessors indicates, it need not do so. For complete persons within a drama, he is a performer worthy whatever fame is currently offered a leading dramatic tenor.

What Kaufmann appears most to enjoy, from both his statements and the evidence of the current album, is the opportunity for inner dialogue, for playing with the character Wagner has devised with words and psychological acumen as well as music. Dynamics go up and down (which speaks well for his Berlin engineers), as if at times he were singing to himself, at other times explaining that self to an audience held spell-struck by his sermon. The Wagner “turn” in Rienzi’s Prayer is a caress of the concept of a knowable, appeal-able God; the ornaments in “Am stillen Herd” are demonstrations of prowess to the sceptical mastersingers—intentionally, no doubt, this is the shallowest of the selections, the one sung most on the surface: Walther has a chip on his shoulder that is not to be heard in Lohengrin’s regretful “In fernem Land.”

Kaufmann’s diction is extraordinary throughout both recordings. I listened to them with a German-speaker who understood each word. They are almost sung-speech, the melodies gliding under the ruminations in soliloquy. Wagner’s narrations seem at times to be his musical response to a study of Shakespearean soliloquy: The poetry is at the service of the thought, the music guides and punctuates but does not rule the form of the poetry. In this way, Wagner’s great monologues resemble what Verdi, also a reader of Shakespeare, was doing with the traditional Italian aria, turning its clichés into self-explorations in song that we overhear rather than have declaimed to us. (That would be a fine conversation for the two 200th-birthday boys: What did you get from Shakespeare? Alas, Wagner and Verdi never quite met, even in Franz Werfel’s captivating 1927 novel, Verdi, in which they sit together, poles apart, through a chilly winter in Venice.)

The most satisfying cuts on this album are the ones most complete by themselves. The solitary Siegfried’s puzzlement about his mysterious ancestry, his affinity for other creatures (which will tell, later, in his similar frankness among deceitful humans)—the man is musing, and his soft and loud dynamics are not the show-off hi-jinks of an operatic figure but a lonely fellow talking to himself, with more speculation in his skull than we ever have reason to credit elsewhere in the drama. If a Siegfried is going to win us over, this is where he must do it. Kaufmann lets us in to the naivety and the purity of Wagner’s hero. We know what everyone else wants from him: What does he want? Human contact with the like-minded someone, somewhere, appears to be the answer.

Less impressive is Siegmund’s “Sword Narration,” if only because, even with superlative engineering, it is hard to accept Kaufmann’s climactic cries of “Wälse!” as something his instrument could possibly produce at this dynamic or extension of breath. It is the weakest selection here, if only because it so naturally implies the duet that follows and we do not get it. Sheer sound, the virtue of bygone heroic tenors like Melchior and Vickers, is not Kaufmann’s specialty: He makes intelligent use of what sound he has. Therefore his enacting of Tannhäuser’s “Rome Narrative,” which has always been stronger with dynamic singers like McCracken, Kollo and Seiffert than with those who simply shouted it out, like Melchior, is tremendously effective. It is not background, it must be followed closely; it is as near to an internal Tannhäuser as we are going to get, and the perfect lead-up to the collapse of his personality that follows in the opera—though we are deprived of it here and some years, I think, must pass before he risks this killing role on stage..

Kaufmann’s attention to text and the signs of strain, mild but distinct, when the music takes him to a place that cannot be easily approached from a baritone grounding make one wonder just where his career will take him. His “Flower Song” in Carmen made the jaw drop when he ascended to floating top notes in effortless breath, and Lohengrin’s exaltation derives a like elegance, as if drawing aside a veil, when the very different lyric tenor sound expresses the indescribable joys of Monsalvat and the holiness of his mission. Lohengrin is, of course, preaching a sermon to an uncomprehending congregation and, like all mystic revelations, this cannot be entirely communicated to those outside the rays of the aura. But a sunny beam does seem to illuminate the words (and the strings accompanying them) and the Deutsches Oper chorus seem properly impressed with it.

The recording concludes with the Wesendonck Lieder as orchestrated by Felix Mottl, a Wagner protégé, with even more references to bits of the Ring and Tristan than occur in the piano version. It is a curious fact that these poems are almost the only music we possess set by Wagner to the text of anyone other than himself. Whatever their quality as poetry, they are not bleeding chunks of greater wholes but separate stories, focused meditations on states of mind. Kaufmann has the opportunity here to develop and complete a thought, to make it his, in a way a Wagnerian excerpt can seldom achieve. Therefore, aside from the sheer beauty of the singing, the close listener will be moved by the childlike tenderness Kaufmann brings to “Der Engel,” the torment and relaxation of “Stehe still!,” the resignation of “Schmerzen.” “Im Treibhaus” is an excellent place to use what technique one has to make a mystical statement, and, without going overboard, Kaufmann twists his voice like a neurasthenic poet wringing her hands. “Träume” also exploits a mystical bent that, as he has demonstrated in Lohengrin and Parsifal, is a special gift of his, of placing his voice in a manner that sounds dreamy and otherworldly, half out of this one. It sets a nice seal on this lovely record as it does on the poems.

John Yohalem


Program:

Ein Schwert verhieβ mir der Vater (Die Walküre); Dass der mein Vater nicht ist (Siegfried); Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab (Rienzi); Inbrunst im Herzen (Rom Narrativ) (Tannhäuser); Am stillen Herd (Die Meistersinger); In fernem Land (original version) (Lohengrin); Wesendonck Lieder (orch. Felix Mottl).

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