Fifteen minutes before Jonas Kaufmann's Wigmore Hall recital began on October 31, the entire queue outside the ladies' room was smiling. In the auditorium, so was most of the assembling audience. Getting into that Central London concert had made everyone feel as if they'd snaffled a golden ticket for Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Kaufmann, the new great tenor of the moment, singing Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin with his mentor Helmut Deutsch at the piano, could have sold out a venue five times the Wigmore's size.
Jonas Kaufmann accompanied by Helmut Deutsch at the Wigmore Hall
A few years ago, few people who were not regulars at the Zurich Opera had even heard of him. Today, though, self-styled "Kauf-maniacs" follow his career, and the man himself, from country to country, from opera to recital. And I can't blame them. For once, there's fire behind this smoke.
Jonas Kaufmann is not a manufactured record company sensation. Instead, he is a consummate performer who brings to his roles the authenticity of empathy, intelligence and culture (in the educated sense), with the beauty of his voice always serving the larger picture. In Die schöne Müllerin words, character, phrasing and tone fused into a Wigmore-sized Gesamtkunstwerk; the authenticity of the emotional life he conveys is the core of it. But it's the final, indefinable quality of spine-tingling truth that tells you you're listening to something that's not just good, but extraordinary.
He has made a select handful of recordings thus far: repertoire is chosen carefully, promotion is not remotely excessive. The latest CD is of verismo arias, including a harrowing account of "Vesti la Giubba" from Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci. He has a book out — but only in German. His official website, too, is in German alone. (It's a moot point whether this tells us much about international cultural expectations of English-speaking countries. These days, many CD booklets place their notes in German before those in English, which might conceivably indicate that we are now regarded as philistines.)
Kaufmann first leapt to attention in the UK with his debut CD of Strauss Lieder (on Harmonia Mundi) four years ago. I was sent the recording to review and put it on without expectation — only to find myself struck speechless by the magnificent Zueignung that opened the disc. Here was that longed-for rarity, a real, heroic German romantic tenor. It must have had the same effect on someone at Decca, which soon snapped him up, and on Angela Gheorghiu, who borrowed him to record Madama Butterfly with her for EMI. He is not confined to German music but equally fabulous in Italian and French repertoire, with Cavaradossi, Don José and Werther among his most celebrated operatic roles, besides Lohengrin and Beethoven's Florestan.
But Kaufmann does not go in for image-making. For him it extends little further than posing as the central figure of Caspar David Friedrich's painting Mountaineer in a Misty Landscape on his album of German romantic arias, Sehnsucht ("Longing"). Neither picture nor title was exactly calculated to appeal to the Simon Cowell generation — and the English edition removed "Sehnsucht", putting the word MOZART first. There's been promotion, but of a restrained, tasteful and delightfully old-fashioned kind. Kaufmann has no need for crossover nonsense or PR in overdrive. Indeed, it is likely that "Kaufmania" is a genuine word-of-mouth sensation.