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Star tenors are not generally known for their sensitivity to the German art song, but Jonas Kaufmann has always profiled himself as an artist first, a tenor second, and he has two other distinct advantages when approaching Schubert’s great song-cycle: he is German, so that the verbal nuances come naturally to him, and he has never sacrificed the lyrical qualities in his voice to the heroic.
This Winterreise, which he will perform at London’s Royal Opera House on April 6, shows he belongs as much on the recital platform as the opera stage, an impression enhanced by the hugely experienced contribution of his pianist, Helmut Deutsch.
Kaufmann has come to this music at the right time – not just in terms of using his fame to attract a new audience for Lieder, but by virtue of his vocal and interpretative maturity. Each of these 24 songs is stamped with integrity and seriousness of purpose: you never sense the singer has slotted Winterreise into a hectic diary of Wagner and Verdi stage roles. Nor is it a performance of expressive effects. The most striking qualities are its artless simplicity, its vocal poise and sheer musicality, drawing maximum purchase on the dark beauty of Kaufmann’s timbre.
The different moods of the lovelorn poet’s ‘winter’s journey’ are not so much extremes as way stations on a consistent path, so that we sense otherworldliness in “Die Post” as well as ebullience, resignation as much as desperation in “Die Krähe”, power next to pianissimo in “Letzte Hoffnung”. Where “Die Nebensonnen” unfolds like a hymn, “Der Leiermann” expires into the ether. After a generation and more in which baritones have dominated Winterreise, it is good once again to have a tenor – a German tenor – setting the standard.