At the feet of Jonas Kaufmann

Since Jonas Kaufmann’s performance of Die schöne Müllerin had been ausverkauft for months, press allocation too, I was more than a tad thrilled to get a last-minute seat. Huge thanks to my fellow blogger ‘Hariclea’ from Opera is Magic!.

It was certainly a sought-after event. Audience members included ambassadors, royalty and Angela Gheorghiu, who’s currently rehearsing with Der Jonas for Adriana Lecouvreur at Covent Garden. Usually at the Wigmore Hall I sit right at the back. Yesterday I was at the front on the extreme left, just a few metres from the performers — this has prompted some reflections on the way we experience sound in London’s best-loved recital hall. And I had an extremely good view, which is no bad thing either. (New nickname for him: Traumschiff. Dreamship. I’m assured it should be “Traumhaft”, but Traumschiff just sounds better.)

At such close range, Kaufmann’s nervous energy was palpable from the moment he set foot on stage. But there could be no more calming, solid and supportive presence than that of Helmut Deutsch, possibly the world’s finest Lieder accompanist, whose partnering made this recital into true chamber music. His profound understanding and empathy for the piano’s role — often portraying the brook itself until the watery depths take over the voice near the end — offered perfect balance with breadth and depth. Kaufmann stood in the bay of the instrument, blending his sound with that emerging from the Steinway.

You can’t really blame him for looking nervous and very occasionally he sounded it as well. But what I love most about his singing, apart from the rich beauty of tone, is that it is all about character. He’s an opera star — not just as singer, but as actor — and it shows. And he’s the ultimate in living, breathing German romanticism: the aesthetic is king and the text its consort, with the music the magic that breathes in the life.

Now, there are as many ways to sing Die schöne Müllerin as there are Lieder singers. Some tell the story as if from outside it; certain ones can’t resist making it all desperately ironic. Others relish the moments of mimicry, poking fun at the pompous miller and the pathetic, ghastly, spoilt girlie who chews up and spits out our young hero’s heart; alternatively some are all innocence and fun before the tragedy kicks in. Kaufmann, though, went for the tragedy. His young miller came over entirely believably from the first lines of ‘Das Wandern’: this miller boy takes himself extremely seriously and fancies himself as an artist, playing with the portraits of water, wheels and millstones for the sake of word-painting them in music. There’s to be little laughter in his tale. Anyone who’s been through a music course at an academic institution has known a lad or two like this. It makes sense: when we reach the mid-point of the cycle, we realise that the boy is indeed a musician, because he hangs his lute on the wall and wonders what songs he may draw out of it in future…

But there’s more. I thought I knew Die schöne Müllerin backwards, but in the fourth song, ‘Danksagung an den Bach’, I found myself scrabbling for the words. That knowing gesture, submissive, bittersweet, proud — did that mean what it seemed to mean? It did. “Well,” says the translation, “however it may be, I accept my fate: whatever I seek, I’ve found…” So there’s a reason for Kaufmann’s darker-than-average portrayal of those normally ecstatic first songs. This boy knows he’s doomed. He’s being sucked into the brook to his death, stage by stage; this is the personality of one who can become, as he later is, obsessed by love, jealousy, the colour green and the notion of fate. As in his magnificent Don José, Kaufmann shows us the seeds of the tragedy in the hero’s fatal flaw, from the word go. Is this true to the work? Yes, of course it is. The text is full to busting with premonitions of death, loss and drowning. It’s just that the vast majority of performers don’t bring this out.

As such, Schubert’s miller has a death-consecrated heart. Forty or so years later, did he mature into Tristan? It couldn’t have been clearer. The heart of German romanticism started here, in Schubert’s babbling brook, aided and abetted by Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (another of Kaufmann’s stun-gun roles) — indeed, listening to Kaufmann, you could see the whole of the 19th century unfurling at the feet of the composer whose friends used to call him the “little mushroom” before his death at the age of mere 31. Everything falls into place. In the final Wiegenlied, as the brook bids ‘gute nacht’ to the drowned hero, Kaufmann’s almost-whispered words bade farewell to the heart of every listener, speaking to the part of us that can’t help but identify with the tale, like it or not — a profoundly uncomfortable reminder of our own humanity, stripped of its usual postmodern pretences.

As for the voice — it’s the quiet ones you have to watch. Kaufmann can do ample con belto when he wants to: I’ve heard him let that voice off the leash at Covent Garden and it is an unforgettable sound. Last night, he did so only very occasionally, often reserving volume for final verses where it achieved maximum contrast with the hushed tones that went before. But the myriad colours of quietness far exceed those available at fortissimo, and this is something the greatest of musicians always understand and exploit. At the softest moments, Kaufmann seemed to squeeze his voice almost out of existence, singing from head rather than chest, seeming virtually to take air in rather than expell it. It almost made me wonder whether he was simply more at home in lower registers, but he sang out at the top just enough to prove that that’s not the case.

I don’t know what it takes to make the Wigmore audience give a standing ovation. Kaufmann deserved one, but it didn’t happen. (Another colleague has gently pointed out that this might be to do with the waiting list for hip replacements.) He gave one encore, an exquisitely hushed Schubert comparative rarity — according to Hariclea, though, in his Paris concert he did four. It’s possible the Wigmore regulars are so scandalised by the idea of even one encore after something as ‘sacred’ as Die schöne Müllerin that they hesitate to encourage such frivolity. Personally I’d have liked him to continue for at least another half an hour.

Something magic must have happened, though, because I came out tweeting in German — and my German is usually appalling, so some interesting buttons were evidently pressed at a deepish level. The great feeling is, though, that we can still look forward to hearing him in the rest of the Lieder repertoire — someone, please give him Schwanengesang, Winterreise, Hugo Wolf, Brahms — and of course to the distant future in which he may perhaps become the world’s greatest Tristan.

For those who couldn’t be there, here is ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’, the cycle’s final song, from his recording. Meanwhile, I went round and got his autograph. I did not faint.

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