Some performers are uneven—musicians, athletes, others. They’re up one day, down the next. It’s human. Jessye Norman gave some of the best recitals I have ever heard. And some of the worst. I could speak of Daniel Barenboim (as pianist or conductor), Martha Argerich, Plácido Domingo . . .
Singers should be cut special slack, I think. They really are athletes, dependent on various things bodily.
Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor, is up and down. Up and down on the opera stage and in the recital hall, both. On Saturday night, he gave a recital in Carnegie Hall. Man, was he up.
This was so from the very first song—one by Liszt, and not an easy one. Kaufmann was confident, “hooked up,” and “in voice.” He never looked back.
The program opened with nine songs of Liszt, all in the German language. Traditionally, a critic mentions the pianist, the accompanist, at the end. Gerald Moore quipped, “My mother is the only person who reads a review from the bottom up.” But we must bring in Helmut Deutsch early.
Sitting next to me was my cousin, a singer. When we had a chance to talk, one of the first things she said was, “My gosh, what a pianist.” Yes.
All night long, he was thoroughly Deutschian. (Deutsch is a veteran pianist, born in Vienna in 1945.) He was bold, unfussy, and no-nonsense. Not that he is blunt. He is plenty nuanced and subtle. But he does things with matter-of-fact professionalism. He has lots of technique, qualifying as a virtuoso. But he is not showy about it. He is very supportive of his singer—but somehow independent at the same time.
One of the Liszt songs was “Ihr Glocken von Marling,” “Bells of Marling.” Deutsch intoned those bells with discipline and beauty.
As I have generalized about Deutsch, I will generalize about his tenor, Kaufmann. In the Liszt songs, Kaufmann did some rough singing—but it was more human than rough. Nothing embarrassing. I must say, too, that Kaufmann was daring. How so? Well, he sang many, many high pianos. Not every one was perfect. But they were always honest pianos. Kaufmann was willing to leave himself exposed.
On some of his high notes—softer and louder—I was nervous. But that is part of the tenor experience, isn’t it? You’re supposed to be a little nervous, as the tenor goes up, same as you are with a French horn (Crack City).
Over and over, Kaufmann demonstrated creamy legato. The German language was beautiful out of his mouth. He is a good storyteller, but he does not let the storytelling get in the way of the song—get in the way of the musical integrity of the song. In any case, the words and the notes blend, with him.
Was Liszt a songwriter? Really and truly a songwriter, in addition to a piano wizard? Kaufmann and Deutsch made you think: yes.
After the Liszt set, the two performed many famous songs—almost a string of greatest hits: “Widmung” (Schumann), “Als die alte Mutter” (Dvořák), “Zueignung” (Strauss), etc. But there were some songs off the beaten path as well.
I was interested to hear a song by Carl Bohm—not Karl Böhm, the Austrian conductor, but Carl Bohm, a German pianist and composer. I was also pleased to hear a song by Zemlinsky—“Selige Stunde,” a winner.
A man named Alois Melichar—an Austrian who lived from 1896 to 1976—took a Chopin melody—from the Étude in E, Op. 10, No. 3—and made a song out of it, supplying the words himself: “Im mir klingt ein Lied.” A very good idea.
One of the “greatest hits” was “Der Musensohn,” by Schubert. Kaufmann toyed with the rhythm, spontaneously—Deutsch stayed right with him, impressively. When Kaufmann got set to sing “Das Veilchen,” I thought, “This is where the rubber meets the road”—because “Das Veilchen” is by Mozart, and Mozart is the supreme test of a singer (and many an instrumentalist too). Kaufmann passed.
Another of the greatest hits was Brahms’s lullaby. It was so very—so very—beautiful. Baby would have wanted to hear it again, and again.
The last song on the program was . . . the greatest song ever written? That’s a silly thing to say. But not all that silly. I am speaking of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. Can there be an encore after this song? Is that possible? Would an encore be . . . almost sacrilegious?
I thought of one possibility. Though they are written for female voice, Kaufmann sings the Wesendonck-Lieder of Wagner. The last of those songs might suit: “Träume.”
As it happened, Kaufmann sang a string of greatest hits—more of the greatest German art songs: “Die Forelle” (Schubert), “Morgen!” (Strauss), etc. One of them was indeed “Träume.” I believe there were six in all.
The last one, if I remember correctly, was “Cäcilie” (Strauss). People had their phones up, as usual. In the middle of the song, Kaufmann stopped and said something like this: “Dear ladies and gentlemen, I do everything for you, but please respect the rules: stop filming!” This was a welcome statement, and it garnered big applause.
Kaufmann and Deutsch started the song over again.
How many great performances does it take before you consider a performer great—honestly great? I have heard Herr Kaufmann many, many times, in the opera house and in the recital hall. I heard him deliver a great Parsifal. (This is the title role in Wagner’s last opera.) I heard the recital on Saturday night. No doubt I have heard other great performances, which are not coming to mind.
No matter: I’ve heard enough.