Outside Montréal’s Maison Symphonique thunder bellowed above a raging snowstorm, while inside the hall Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch helped transport the audience to warmer climes. These two performers, with the aid of Franz Schubert’s music and Wilhelm Müller’s poetry, transformed the concert hall into idyllic and pastoral Germany, where a wanderer follows the whim of a lazy brooklet through heath, meadow and forest with only his lute for a companion.

Jonas Kaufmann © Dietmar Scholz
Jonas Kaufmann
© Dietmar Scholz

Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin was the work to be performed this evening by the formidable heldentenor and his equally competent accompanist – 20 magnificent songs with a linear dramatic plot, about half of which are cast in the difficult-to-memorize strophic form. Poet Wilhelm Müller was no stranger to the transformation of poetry into song, as composers often set his poetry to music at salon concerts which he attended and organized. Perhaps no one realized his dramatic intentions so well as Schubert, however. Curiously, both men didn’t live past their mid-thirties.

The cycle begins with the ebullient and optimistic joy of a young wanderer set out on an adventure with only a brook as his guide. The accompaniment is lively and zealous, and Kaufmann’s first lines matched the mood precisely. He is known for the sheer power of his voice, which can easily soar above the gargantuan orchestras of Wagner or Mahler, but here, completely exposed, we were able to hear the expressive capabilities of his voice, which turned out to be quite stunning. After the first song ended, applause erupted, but it was quickly silenced by the hissing Schubert connoisseurs who knew that the value of each individual song is nothing compared to the dramatic arc of the cycle.

Kaufmann’s voice was constantly changing color. The emotion of joy was a brighter, more open and heroic tone, while pensiveness was more contained and withdrawn. The wanderer continues on his aimless quest and finally finds himself at a mill. There is a moment of sheer joy when he sees that the miller’s daughter is extraordinarily fair, and falls in love with her at first sight. The first sign of danger and impending obsession appears already in the fourth song, “A Song of Thanks to the Brook”, in which he asks the brook “Hat sie dich geschickt? Oder hast mich berückt?” – “Has she sent you, or am I being tricked?” – and the piano accompaniment falls into the minor mode.

The wanderer begins to fall deeper and deeper in love, yet goes completely unnoticed by the miller’s daughter. After a tempestuous episode in “On the Restful Evening” Kaufmann delivered some of the most tender singing of the evening for the song “The Curious One”. This is singing which one can never explore in opera, a kind of intimacy reserved for the small salon which can’t even be truly realized in a concert hall. Kaufmann was spellbinding, despite that fact, and Deutsch’s accompaniment was immensely refined and subdued.

In the song “Rain of Tears” the despair of the wanderer becomes more and more unbearable, and we see that the depths of the brook seem alluring to him. Finally, the miller’s daughter offers a few casual words to him: “The rain comes; farewell, I am going home.” This is enough to send the wanderer into ecstatic bliss. The next song, “Mine”, contains the cycle’s first fortissimo. The singing was wonderful as always, but I found it lacking the kind of insane joy that the text calls for at this moment. In fact, both the singing and the accompaniment sounded the same as the very opening song. There was a long period of applause after this song concluded.

A masculine hunter appears at the mill, and breaks the wander’s dreamworld apart as he begins to see the miller’s daughter flirting with the man. There was mounting anxiety and tension in the piano and Kaufmann’s voice. The song “Jealousy and Pride” took a dangerous turn in the drama as the piano emulated the raging brook. Soon, the wanderer becomes hopelessly obsessed with the idea of the color green, which both he and the miller’s daughter adore. The song “The Cherished Color” was absolutely fantastic. Schubert finds all the subtext in the poetry and perhaps more, and Kaufmann brought out all that deep meaning with clarity and confidence as he played the desperate and deranged thrall that the wanderer had become. After all, a brook is never simply a brook to the German poets, nor is the color green just a hue.

The wanderer cannot bear his jealousy and the weight of his unrequited love, and throws himself into the depths of the brook which guided him to the place of his demise. The most striking song is the last, “The Brook’s Lullaby”, in which the brook itself sings to the body of the wanderer which it now holds below, protecting and soothing him. Kaufmann’s voice exuded complete serenity and peace. After an hour of difficult singing Kaufmann hardly seemed taxed.

The audience then offered the most raucous and unrelenting applause I have ever witnessed in Montréal by far. Nine curtain calls were demanded in all, and the two men were compelled to perform three encores, Die Forelle, Der Musensohn and finally Luise, the otherworldly calmness of which all but hypnotized us.

*****