Hours after the star-studded Royal wedding, the Barbican was treated to its own visit from an indisputable point of the classical firmament; after the unfortunate cancellation in February 2017, Jonas Kaufmann at last returned to sing the programme of Strauss lieder with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jochen Rieder to an unsurprisingly packed hall.

Jonas Kaufmann © Mark Allan | Barbican
Jonas Kaufmann
© Mark Allan | Barbican

More often than not, the non-vocal elements that pad out a concert by a major singer can seem uninspired and workmanlike, a sideshow to the main attraction. It was a testament both to the orchestra and the interesting programming that this was far from the case at this concert. The evening began with the Schauspiel Overture by Korngold, a piece written when the remarkable composer was just 14 years old – thanks to which he remains in the record books for youngest composer to have a première at the Proms – and which is full of his trademarks: the broad sweep, the lush writing for strings and that curious feeling that there’s something deeper beyond what one is hearing. Coolness from the strings and ripe, rounded playing from the oboe made for a compelling start, though the performance was slightly inhibited by imperfections in the brass. It is said that the piece is inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays, though which – if any – remains a mystery; nonetheless Rieder brought a drive to the middle of the piece which was well contrasted to the autumnal languor of the finale.

We then moved into Strauss with the second interlude from his 1924 opera Intermezzo with glowing playing from the cellos and rapturous feeling of triumphant climax. Again, Rieder was spot on with dynamics and tempi, urgent at times but not rushed. The final orchestral piece of the evening was our only departure from Austria, Elgar’s expansive In the South overture, a work inspired by the splendid weather in the Alassio resort where Elgar was recuperating from the fatigue of composing The Apostles. John Pickard’s excellent programme note compares Elgar to Mahler and Strauss; with the heft and weight the string section brought to the overture, one could easily agree. The brass too, after the weak start at the start of the concert, were on fine form, full and forceful. There was a real sense of achievement, of all players in the band coming together and producing a superb account of the piece, but the highlight was the superb viola solo; smooth and eloquent, it really did bring the performance together.

Jochen Rieder leads the BBCSO © Mark Allan | Barbican
Jochen Rieder leads the BBCSO
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The fact of just how unusual the musical intelligence with which Jonas Kaufmann sings can sometimes be lost in the drama of a staged opera. Every syllable is carefully shaped, the words coloured and shaded, displaying an acute awareness and sensitivity to the text. It was such a shame that the repertoire was a poor fit for his voice. The concert was titled “Kaufmann sings the Four Last Songs” and as such, there was an expectation that the performance of these should be exceptional. Even recalibrated, the songs are so carefully shaped for the soprano voice that they do not seem suited to a tenor voice. More often than not, Kaufmann’s uniquely dark voice failed to cut across or rise over the swell of the orchestra. It could be argued that Rieder might have moderated the orchestra a little more, but the songs deserve bold and searing playing, and the soloist should be able to rise to the occasion.

The best of the songs was “September”, which seemed more comfortable for his voice. Kaufmann injected the final words “die Müdgewordnen Augen zu” with aching weariness, having descended in the final verse to his trademark pianissimo singing. The other three songs were less successful, particularly “Frühling” and “Beim Schlafengehen” which had one or two moments of strain that were quite uncomfortable on the ears. The other Strauss songs, more of a mixture, were better suited to his voice. “Befreit” saw a fine ascent into the higher register, the note sustained and unforced, while “Ruhe, meine Seele” and “Freundliche Vision” saw his grasp of the text at its best.

Even taking into consideration the questionable choice of repertoire, witnessing a singer like Kaufmann in recital is a memorable experience, the technique and artistry on display a joy in which to be immersed.

***11