Those who attended Jonas Kaufmann’s Vienna Wagner debut and were wondering why his Parsifal was beautiful but rather underwhelming in volume, were given the answer on the stage of the Konzerthaus two days later, when he announced himself as “still ill after a severe cold”. But happily, as it turned out, the warning was barely necessary; there was a light shade on his voice (permissible in a gloomy piece like Die Winterreise) and there were also one or two notes with which he might not have been too happy, but many tenors in perfect health would probably kill for intonation and diction as spotless as his in this recital.
Vocally, Schubert’s introspective journey in the snow fits him like a glove. Originally written for tenor voice, I have often found renditions by baritones more interesting for matters of colour and emotional depth reflected in the voice, so Kaufmann’s rather dark tenor is an asset. Put this together with the in-depth studies of the works he sings, you can not only expect beauty in sound, but valid artistic choices as well.
That said, “Gute Nacht”, the first song of 24 in this cycle, was performed in what struck me as too fast tempo for the narrator’s general mood: a rejected lover, he wanders around in the winter cold, visiting and yet fleeing places that remind him of his beloved, and as his lonely journey wears on, little events (hoar frost on his head in “Der greise Kopf”, a crow in “Die Krähe”) become overpowering symbols of the Weltschmerz (world-weariness) that he is gravitating to as in a maelstrom. So while creativity is always welcome, an unusual tempo to start Winterreise is not necessary – there is more than enough change of pace in the cycle and often within a single song to provide tension, not to speak of dynamics and colour, as he himself poignantly proved from the second song on.
A highlight was surely “Der Lindenbaum”, which is the touchstone for the Austrian audience, not only because it is the easiest on the ear of the cycle, but because practically everyone has sung it (or at least had to try), as it was featured in the standard Austrian school songbook that was given to more than two million pupils between 1965 and 2005. A professional artist, of course, is not expected to perform in this folk song tradition, but most Austrians prefer it to be given with the focus on serenity and yearning for the happiness of days gone by rather than the suicidal aspect that many singers seek to stress in over-articulating the legato or slowing it down to the detriment of the line. Kaufmann, on the contrary, lovingly carved the phrases like the narrator carved his words into the trunk of the lime tree while changing his voice from baritone colours to clear and cutting as a ray of light.
“Irrlicht” (“Will o’ the wisp”) was suitably eerie; in “Die Post”, the last line of each verse (“Mein Herz?”) was throbbing with passion and “Der stürmische Morgen” had an almost Wagnerian touch of drama to it that fitted the stormy and cloudy daybreak depicted very well and was only trumped by the haunting beauty of the harmonies in “Nebensonnen” (“The Phantom Suns”). “Der Leiermann”, the ultimate song and climax of the cycle, is perhaps the most difficult to interpret, not only because the piano accompaniment is as bare as the hurdy-gurdy man’s feet, but because Wilhelm Müller’s text features more poetic over-statement there than in the other poems of the cycle, so the challenge lies in avoiding false pathos. To me, Kaufmann achieved just that, focusing on the text and rising to a surprising crescendo on the last note, like someone close to death finding the energy for last words.
It is a great achievement when a charismatic singer like him sometimes lets you forget he is there and instead makes you conjure up pictures of what he is singing about, but making you almost forget the piano accompaniment is not. Helmut Deutsch certainly gave an impeccable performance, but it sometimes seemed that his former teacher-student relationship with Kaufmann has reversed and that he is not an equal partner whereas a pianist should make some impression on his own in the team effort that Die Winterreise is supposed to be. Most in the audience, however, thought differently and applauded both him and Kaufmann frenetically. The latter was even presented with many flowers in pink, which, in Schubert’s time, would have stood for tenderness and shy admiration, though his was a vocal performance that reminded me more of the figurative blue flower of German Romanticism, symbol of beauty and otherworldliness.