Jonas Kaufmann, German singer extraordinaire, may not be fully human. His exquisite chocolatey tenor, coupled with his extraordinary command of diction, tone and emotion, lend him an other-worldly air, whether performing opera or singing lieder. This man can do no wrong, as was witnessed Tuesday night at his Berlin Philharmonic performance of Schubert’s intense song cycle Winterreise. Accompanied by his long-time friend and mentor, Helmut Deutsch, Kaufmann inhabited a world of his own, one so far removed from that of the concert hall that he appeared dazed when the audience broke into applause.

Jonas Kaufmann © schotzshootspeople
Jonas Kaufmann
© schotzshootspeople

Schubert composed Winterreise in 1827 while dying of what may have been syphilis. Set to text by Wilhelm Müller, the cycle tells the story of a man rejected by his beloved, condemned to wander in a frozen winter landscape, pursuing a death that eludes him. The cycle horrified Schubert’s friends when he presented it to them, filled as it was with snow and ice and existential despair. Even today, with stories of horror and pain at our fingertips, Winterreise still has the power to bring listeners to tears. In the hands of a consummate artist, the effect is devastating.

Winterreise seems tailor-made for Jonas Kaufmann. Part of his considerable fame stems not only from his voice, but from his uncanny ability to slip into a character’s skin and psyche (director Richard Eyre likened his acting skills to those of Robert De Niro). If anyone is going to evoke the horror and grief of a man stunned by his loss, and do it with extraordinary vocal sensitivity to boot, it is Kaufmann.

From the ironic, helpless farewell of “Gute Nacht” to the false hope of “Die Post” and the despair of “Der Leiermann”, Kaufmann exhibited a range of emotions that would leave any mere mortal devastated, but which only served to heighten the intensity of Schubert’s music. That Kaufmann was in some other world, unaware of his audience, was obvious. He caressed and snarled, spat phrases and sang through his teeth, not a narrator telling a story from afar, but a man living the pain in the very moment. Kaufmann’s dark tenor is ideal for Winterreise, for this is not the naïve lover of Die schöne Müllerin but a mature man confronting his loss head on. Neither too big nor too deep, Kaufmann’s singing was of exquisite beauty and passion.

Jonas Kaufmann © schotzshootspeople
Jonas Kaufmann
© schotzshootspeople

Helmut Deutsch was equally passionate at the piano. Tenor and pianist have known each other for twenty years, and that they are perfectly attuned to each other was clear. Deutsch sometimes took the lead, his piano becoming the roaring wind and howling dogs that drive the wanderer on. At other times, he allowed Kaufmann to stride ahead, his playing soft and understated. Together they delivered a gorgeous, despairing end to the cycle, as Kaufmann’s wanderer accepted his fate in “Der Leiermann”, his singing the softest beaten piano while Deutsch urged him on to a final crescendo that embodied the man’s final howl of pain.

Silence filled the hall for several seconds after the last note faded away. Then Kaufmann came back to himself with a dazed smile, and the audience shouted and stomped their approval. Looking slightly punch drunk, Kaufmann bowed again and again. However bleak the world may be for the poet in Winterreise, for Jonas Kaufmann it can only be golden.