Jonas Kaufmann, the starry German tenor, gave a recital in Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. He was accompanied by Helmut Deutsch, the veteran Austrian pianist. Deutsch has accompanied anyone and everyone—including the late Hermann Prey, for twelve years.
Kaufmann has been singing the title role of Massenet’s Werther at the Metropolitan Opera. And here he was, giving a recital. A tenor recital is not a common event. Years ago, John Pfeiffer wrote the following, in liner notes for a recital recording of Jussi Bjoerling: “The opera tenor who ventures onto the recital stage inevitably recalls Dr. Samuel Johnson’s observation about lady preachers: ‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’”
The first half of Kaufmann’s recital was devoted to Schumann, beginning with songs from Op. 35. Kaufmann’s voice was as it usually is: pleasant, smooth, and also contained or muffled. One longs to bring it forward, or at least I did. In these initial songs, he was not even, throughout his range: He had different voices, below the break and above. (Both were muffled.)
Deutsch showed himself to be a real pro. One of his qualities is unafraidness: He plays straightforwardly, without fear or fussiness. The lid of the piano was way up.
In Schumann’s great song "Stille Tränen,” Kaufmann suffered badly. His singing was very rough, and he had little voice. He did some false operatic clutching at high notes. I was wondering how he would get through the evening. He had at least an hour of singing to go. Deutsch, surprisingly, committed some ugly trills.
Then they did a great Schumann song-cycle, Dichterliebe. Kaufmann was better in it than I had feared. He held on to himself. His middle voice was fine, but he had no low notes whatsoever—too bad for “Ich grolle nicht,” among other songs—and he continued to clutch at high notes.
Most important, he did not establish real authority or cast a spell. Ideally, a listener forgets time and space, when listening to this cycle. He is simply in the world of the songs. This did not happen, in my judgment.
Let me mention a particular line: “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen.” That’s how one song begins: “On a radiant summer morning.” The line, sung, should sound like such a morning. On this evening, it was merely ordinary.
The piano has much to do with this cycle, for Schumann was a pianist, and a very good composer for the piano. Deutsch held up his end. His playing was totally no-nonsense, but not unfeeling. The accompaniment in “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen,” a song about music, was almost Spanish.
Instead of getting worse, Kaufmann got better as the cycle wore on, and at the end they cheered for him as for Wunderlich or Fischer-Dieskau.
At least once before, I have written about the Cult of Kaufmann. He is a fine singer, and I have heard him sing superbly, but I don’t quite understand his celebrity. The PR machine grinds for him daily. Sometimes, I think there is some secret committee that decides who will be famous—who will have a big career—and who will not.
I used to think of music as a meritocracy. I still do, to a degree. But, if you want pure merit, turn to sports—to individual sports, in particular. There’s nothing a PR machine can do about a track time or a score on a golf course.
To begin the second half, Kaufmann sang the Wesendonck Lieder of Wagner—songs for “the female voice,” as the composer specified. But men have sung them, including Melchior. And if Eileen Farrell had a right to sing the blues, Jonas Kaufmann certainly has a right to sing the Wesendonck Lieder.
He sang them nicely. “Schmerzen” was particularly good. I will lodge a complaint, however: Kaufmann’s piano, in these songs and other songs, was often not a real piano. It was fake. Lots of singers hood the voice and sing hoarsely, but that is not a piano. In a real piano, the voice maintains its body, but at a lower volume.
Anyway, Pavarotti faked and hooded and hoarsed, too, so Kaufmann is in good company.
For the final set on the program, he switched to a different language—to Italian, for Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets. And here, the German tenor did some of his best singing of the night: some of his most beautiful, most assured, and most musical.
The audience erupted into applause, and ladies handed the singer bouquet after bouquet. He rewarded them with a “second recital,” six encores. Most of them were Strauss (Richard, not one of the Viennese family). Kaufmann was singing much better at 9:45 and 10 than he had been at 8 and 8:15—which is the right direction.
One of the encores was “Heimliche Aufforderung,” Strauss’s marvelous rhapsody. Its final lines are soaring, thrilling: “O komm, du wunderbare, ersehnte Nacht!” They should be horizontal and rapturous. Imagine them declaimed—vertical, square. That’s how Kaufmann sang them.
He ended with an operetta chestnut, the Lehár number we know in English as “Girls Are Made to Kiss and Love.” Kaufmann threw in some English words, as well as the German. He was not exactly Tauberesque, but he was charming enough.
I have been hard on Kaufmann, in part because he is one of the starriest singers in the world. He commands top dollar and full houses. And he is a commendable singer—sometimes an excellent singer—even if I don’t quite see, or hear, what all the fuss is about.