Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch recorded Die schöne Müllerin back in 2009. That recording, made while Kaufmann was still a Decca artist, was recorded live in concert. Now, early on in his new contract with Sony, he gives us a recording of Winterreise made under studio conditions. I bought the earlier recording when it came out and I found a great deal to admire in it so I was eager to hear Kaufmann in this second great Wilhelm Müller cycle.
It’s perhaps worth making an initial observation, even at the risk of stating the obvious. Kaufmann has a very big, operatic voice that’s well suited to, say, Puccini and Verdi and with more than a baritonal tint to it. As such, though he’s more than capable of finingRead more down his voice – and does so frequently here - he offers a very different experience in this cycle as compared to the lighter voices of tenors such as Mark Padmore, Peter Pears or Peter Schreier. I’m aware that all three of those singers – and many others who have recorded Winterreise - are no strangers to the operatic stage but I fancy that in Kaufmann’s case the balance of his career is more weighted towards opera than to Lieder and one is frequently reminded, while listening, that here is a musical actor at work.
Kaufmann comes to Winterreise with a formidable operatic reputation but he is less celebrated as a recitalist, the earlier recording of Die schöne Müllerin notwithstanding. However, it is clear from listening to this performance that he has thought very carefully about the musical and dramatic issues of the cycle as a whole and of the individual songs. Revisiting a few of the songs from his account of Die schöne Müllerin I formed the impression, perhaps wrongly, that his voice sounded lighter in that 2009 recording than is the case here. That’s not to imply for a minute that Kaufmann does not employ a light voice when appropriate in Winterreise. It may be that he feels that Winterreise requires darker colours and more vocal heft – and that’s a very defensible point of view – or it may be that in the four years that separate these recordings his voice has acquired additional hues and has matured even further into an even more impressive and varied instrument.
Throughout this performance Kaufmann deploys an impressively wide range of vocal colouring. He gives an early example of this in Gefrorne Tränen where the colours enhance his expressiveness. The very last phrase, ‘des ganzen Winters Eis!’, is delivered with a very full, operatic tone which, I must say, took me by surprise at first. I’d expected strong singing at this point – the phrase is marked ‘stark’, after all – but this is the thrilling sound of an operatic tenor pretty much in full cry. It’s not the last example of Kaufmann ‘letting go’ in this performance, either. However, such moments are reserved for the appropriate junctures and so make their mark all the more tellingly when they occur.
On the other side of the ledger, as it were, Kaufmann often fines down his singing to an impressively controlled mezza voce. Among several examples that I noted were the final stanza of Gute Nacht, the third and sixth stanzas of Frühlingstraum and the whole of Der Leiermann.
Having a singer with Kaufmann’s dynamic range and dramatic sensibility pays real dividends in terms of the contrasts that he can effect within a song. Thus, for example, there’s an abundance of dynamic contrast amid the turbulence of Die Wetterfahne and again in Wasserflut. In Einsamkeit the delivery of the first two stanzas sounds withdrawn but Kaufmann turns on the intensity and power for the third stanza. If you want to hear an example of his dramatic sensibility listen to Irrlicht; this is a performance by a singer accustomed to the stage and who can deploy a wide range of colours and dynamics to bring out all the meaning of the words.
For all Kaufmann’s vocal prowess there are some facets of the cycle that I don’t believe he brings out as well as some other singers I’ve heard. This is not to diminish his achievements here but rather to emphasise that certain types of singers are better equipped than others at bringing out nuances in these songs. For example, consider Der Greise Kopf. The singing as such is very impressive but I miss the glacial chill that a singer such as Schreier could bring to the opening lines. That said, Kaufmann is very expressive in his own way, not least in the bald tone with which he delivers the last line of the second stanza. His reading of Die Krähe is compelling but I’ve heard some other versions in which the scariness of the crow’s presence is brought out more vividly. However, Schubert’s music is so inexhaustible and so multi-faceted that it’s unreasonable to expect that any singer will be able to deliver everything.
That last statement is true of the three tenors that I mentioned at the start of this review. All of them – and others - bring things to Winterreise that are remarkable in their own right and so does Jonas Kaufmann. His singing of this cycle is very impressive.
The success of the reading is due in no small measure to the contribution of pianist Helmut Deutsch. He is a renowned accompanist and his experience and insights bring a considerable amount to this performance.
Jonas Kaufmann’s many admirers will certainly want to hear this new recording and I think that Lieder collectors will also want to hear one of the most acclaimed of today’s voices in some of the greatest Lieder in the repertoire.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
SCHUBERT Winterreise • Jonas Kaufmann (t); Helmut Deutsch (pn) • SONY 3795652 (70:16 Text and Translation)
Schubert’s Winterreise represents to many the pinnacle of Lieder singing—a sometimes daunting, always demanding challenge for singer and pianist, a journey not only laden with emotional and interpretive tests, but also fraught with inevitable comparisons to the great interpreters of the past. That the preeminent tenor of our age, Jonas Kaufmann, should wish to essay Schubert’s song cycle comes as no surprise. Kaufmann has already made a profound mark on the Lieder repertoire, and on this disc, partnered by Helmut Deutsch, the tenor cements his reputation as one of the finest interpreters of classical song to grace the concert platform.
Despite Kaufmann’s relative youth (just 43 when the disc was recorded in 2013 after he and Deutsch had given a string of live performances), this Winterreise has a stunning maturity. On first hearing, the singer leaves the listener breathless with the depth, nuance, and sheer intensity of his interpretation.
As with everything he performs, Jonas Kaufmann sings with complete identification and immersion in the music and its drama. This account of the Wanderer’s tragic tale is not observation or empathetic narration, as some interpreters offer. Rather, it is an experience lived in the moment, conjured up from some deep place within. Rarely has the listener felt so present in the painful journey as he does in Kaufmann’s interpretation, as he marries text and music in the crucible of emotion. And he does this without ever overstepping the stylistic constraints of the genre.
Indeed, as a Lieder singer, Jonas Kaufmann is able to demonstrate his masterful musicianship, the infinite colors of his instrument, and his impressive command of phrasing and dynamics. His dark, baritonally-based lower register, his dusky, veiled middle, his effortless top, and dazzling command of pianissimo and mezza voce are all used here with elegant nuance. And then there are the words, which somehow seem so immediate, so natural that the listener forgets he is hearing them through the artifice of poetry and song.
In Helmut Deutsch, the tenor’s long-ago mentor and now incomparable pianistic partner, this Winterreise has a brilliant fellow voyager. Deutsch’s piano line breathes with the singer; he creates not dialogue but a fused musical conversation. His touch is limpid and lyrically articulated, and he is note-perfect in capturing the mercurial moods of Schubert’s music. His piano becomes the immutable force of the journey.
Kaufmann’s take on the Wanderer is a brooding, existential one—less meditative than Fischer-Dieskau in any of his seven commercial recordings, less refined and elegant, though not without its exquisite moments, than Thomas Hampson’s somewhat beautifully remote version, and less overtly agonized than Peter Pears or Ian Bostridge. Instead, he gives a performance rich in irony, fearless in despair, and painfully beautiful in its moments of lyrical transcendence.
The tenor begins the voyage battling bitter memories. “Gute Nacht” has a chilly irony that refuses self-pity and betrays a hint of vulnerability on “an dich hab ich gedacht.” “Die Wetterfahne” allows us to hear the power of Kaufmann’s voice and his dynamic range as he examines his anger and agitation. “Gefrorne Tränen” has an eerie melancholy. Phrases like “zur Eise” ring with colorless chill, while Deutsch’s piano creates the rhythmic patter of frozen rain. “Erstarrung” is rich in tonal color and demonstrates Kaufmann’s magnificent legato, as well as his deft handling of Schubert’s strophic repetitions. The way he inflects the repeated question, “Wo find ich eine Blüte” is a master class in mood shifts from vulnerable to bitter, while a phrase like “wie erfroren” cuts like a knife.
In the lovely “Der Lindenbaum” Kaufmann’s Wanderer is unsparing as he remembers his own foolishness, and when he concludes with “Du fändest Ruhe dort!”—the tiny tremolo on the phrase reveals the Wanderer’s death wish, which then carries over into “Wasserflut” and “Auf dem Flusse,” where he lovingly addresses death in the stream.
The quick tempos of “Rückblick” and “Irrlicht” introduce a manic contemplation of the seductions of the grave, which expends itself in the exhaustion of “Rast.” Little touches like the knife-like quality of the tenor’s delivery of “erst deinen Wurm” or the drained tone of “wie müd ich bin” underscores the inexorable treadmill this voyage has become. “Frühlingstraum” turns dream into nightmare; “Einsamkeit” faces the sad truth; the Wanderer has begun to hallucinate.
The cycle takes a turn toward its sepulchral end. “Die Post” is manic; “Der greise Kopf” a moment of frightening lucidity; “Eine Krähe” a tenderly eerie embrace of becoming the raven’s prey. This existential acceptance of his fate propels the singer into “Letzte Hoffnung” and “Im Dorfe” where “ist alles zerflossen” becomes a whispered self-imposed sentence. “Der stürmische Morgen” is taken at a fast and frightening clip, while in “Täuschung” the singer almost laughs at his illusion. “Der Wegweiser” Is a brilliant study of mood shifts from the eerie sadness of the funereal opening to the last verse where the singer’s voice, drained of all color, pronounces the fateful “die noch keiner ging züruck.”
The last four songs of Schubert’s cycle offer the deepest expressive challenges. Kaufmann’s “Das Wirthaus” is a non-sentimental preview of the Wanderer’s own death, which segues into “Mut” where the singer declares the much debated lines, “will kein Gott auf Erden sein, sind wir selber Götter”—not with triumphal Promethean revolt as in some readings, but rather as a pronouncement of despair. If God is dead, Kaufmann’s suggests, then destiny is in the Wanderer’s own hands, and that destiny, as the concluding two songs attest, permits him to end his own life should he choose.
“Die Nebensonnen” achieves almost an ecstasy of agony as the Wanderer affirms “In Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein,” which segues into “Der Leiermann,” the haunting finish with the singer’s spectral pianos and then stark, but firm (more emphatic than some) bravely delivered final line. Of all the songs, this one has perhaps received the greatest variety of readings; who is this hurdy-gurdy man? For Kaufmann, he seems to be the Wanderer’s ghost, a searing vision of where his destiny as a voyager and artist leads. For me, rarely has this song struck to the soul the way it does in this recording. Kaufmann creates a chilling, otherworldly ambiance. Again, it is his identification, his embodying the Wanderer and his sepulchral alter-ego that makes a shattering finale. The wintry landscape with its haunting visions has become the whiteness of a blank page on which the Wanderer is impelled to inscribe his fate.
In the same way that Winterreise ends with an existential question, one wonders if this recording by Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch may prove to be but a first reading for an artist, who, as he continues to mature, may wish, like Fischer-Dieskau, to revisit and reexamine the richness of Schubert’s work. But even if Kaufmann were never to return to record another Winterreise, there is such mastery in this disc, as to assure it a special place in the annals of song literature.
The sound on the CD, recorded at the August Everding Saal in Grünwald, Germany, is warm, rich, resonant, and reminiscent of a live concert experience. The booklet not only presents the texts/translations effectively, but also contains an informative interview-essay by Kaufmann and Deutsch in conversation with Thomas Voigt, which adds a personal touch.
In this writer’s opinion, one can never own too many recordings of Winterreise! For Kaufmann’s legion of fans, it is a priceless testament to his art and his voice in their prime and a grand tribute to his memorable musical partnership with Helmut Deutsch, and for all those who love Lieder and cherish Schubert’s greatest cycle, this disc is a must-have. It is, as Kaufmann himself says about the role singing plays in his own life, “an emotional experience which purges the soul” and leaves the listener on a transcendent high.
Jonas Kaufmann (),
Helmut Deutsch (Piano),
Jonas Kaufmann (Tenor)
Period: Romantic Written: 1827; Vienna, Austria Venue: August Everding Saal, Grünwald, Germany Length: 65 Minutes 22 Secs.
Average Customer Review: ( 6 Customer Reviews )
A fabulous new interpretation, but is it the best?July 10, 2014By Bernard A J. (Kansas City, MO)See All My Reviews"Three new Winterreise recordings have hit the charts in the very recent past. First came Mark Padmore with Paul Lewis which may at the time have set the gold standard for recent recordings. Then came Gerald Finley and Julius Drake which many critics thought was the best ever done. I purchased that recording and found it to be second to the Padmore in my listening. It also helps that I am a great fan of Padmore's beautiful tenor. I knew that Kaufmann was coming though, and I am a great fan of his also considering him the finest operatic tenor to have ever come along in my time. Reviews have been raves and not so raves for the recording, but I think you have to really listen intently to Kaufmann's interpretation to really appreciate it as it is so different. First the baritone quality of his tenor voice kicks in and gives me a sense of almost a different voice at times - not necessarily as beautiful as Kaufmann usually is at the start but in a passionate voice that comes off in the whole as one that is even more beautiful than anything I have heard from him. The controversial ending of the Der Leiermann can send chills up your spine. As Opera News put it - daring. When all is said, I would rank it as my number one version by a whisker over Padmore. Both of them rate five stars for different reasons, but Schubert Winterreise affectionados as well as anyone who just loves beautiful and passionate singing of Schubert's masterpiece, you can't go wrong with the Kaufmann. Buy and enjoy!"Report Abuse
Beautiful LiederJune 20, 2014By L. Majors (Bartlesville, OK)See All My Reviews"This is my first exposure to Schubert's Winterreise, so I can't make comparisons with other recordings, but it is hard to imagine a more well sung or played performance. The sound quality is also outstanding: warm, intimate, and immaculate. Anyone interested in Schubert's Winterreise should put this recording high on their audition list."Report Abuse
An exceptional rendition.May 12, 2014By Joseph Erdeljac (West Chester, PA)See All My Reviews"Here we have a great rendition of this masterwork of a song cycle that ranks in the same category with Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau. Although their approach to this work may be different both leave you with a sense of "awe", not having just sung it but interpreted and plumbed it to its heights and depths."Report Abuse