Epic Met Lieder from Jonas Kaufmann

(Not at the Met.)

Just because one can sell almost the entire giant Met singing an arty Lieder program, as Jonas Kaufmann managed to do this afternoon, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea to do so. That being said, he showed up, hair decorously tamed for the occasion, and is singularly equipped to succeed in this format. He has the elegance and musical refinement to sing art songs but never quite loses the large-format emotionalism of a singing actor. I had trouble shaking the feeling that I was watching from Central Park, but a good concert it was.

Jonas Kaufmann in Recital, Metropolitan Opera, 10/30/2011. Helmut Deutsch, piano. Program: Liszt, “ Vergiftet sind meine Lieder,” “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome,” “Freundvoll und leidvoll,” Der König in Thule, Ihr Glocken von Marling, Die drei Zigeuner. Mahler; Five Rücker Lieder. Duparc, L’invitation au voyage, Phildylé, Le Manoir de Rosamunde, Chanson triste, La vie antéieure. Strauss, Schlechtes Wetter, “Schön sind, coh kalt die Himmelsterne, Befreit, Heimliche Aufforderung, Morgen!, Cäcilie. Encores: Strauss, ”Breit über mein Haupt,“ ”Ach weh, mir unglückhaftem Mann,“ Freundliche Vision, Zueignung; Lehár, ”Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.“

I’m getting a lot of Googlers who want to ID the encores. They were “Breit’ über mein Haupt,” “Ach weh, mir unglückhaftem Mann,” Freundliche Vision and Zueignung (all Strauss) and Lehár, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.” (Yes, I knew them all from ear, but I’m a Strauss nerd.)

This was mostly the same program I heard Kaufmann give last July (the Strauss set, whose order I did not like at all in July, has thankfully been reconfigured), and my impressions are pretty similar, though I thought Kaufmann was possibly in even better voice today than his excellent July outing. His tone is dark and substantial but he maintains a remarkable liquid legato and dynamic control that is amazing for a voice of his size, and he has formidable musicality and attention to detail. He can fill the Met and even raise its roof when required, but it still took me some adjustment to scale to something so delicate in a hall of this size.

I again didn’t think the Liszt set was that great, but maybe these songs are just not my cup of tea. (I am ready for Liszt Year to be over, honestly.) They are so generic in expression that they came off more as lessons in beautiful piano singing (“Ihr Glocken von Marling”), declamation (“Vergiftet sind meine Lieder”) or flowing rhythms (“Der König in Thule”) than as dramatic statements. Only the spooky “Drei Zigeuner” really picked up speed. (The Met obviously didn’t check with Kaufmann as to whether he was going to sing the coda of this song, which is marked as optional in my score–he did not but the text was still in the program. I think it’s better without.)

Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, however, were extremely good, with Kaufmann’s talent for singing and not getting lost in extremely long phrases allowing for slow tempos in “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” the latter registering particularly strongly in its stillness and desolation. I missed the woodwind glissandos in “Um Mitternacht” but for this song the piano version gets a great intense claustrophobia.“Um Mitternacht” was placed at the end, my preferred ordering (on my CD Bernstein puts “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” last, which makes the surrender of “Um Mitternacht” far less powerful and besides is just a bummer). Here the size of the Met actually began to prove useful, and Kaufmann put a lot of heft into the final section to good effect.

The second half’s Duparc set was less idiomatic; Kaufmann’s voice has warmth but it’s more like a fireplace than a sunbeam and the climax moments sometimes sounded a bit too muscular. But his French is excellent and his pianos continued to be gorgeous. Despite fabulous modulations, Duparc’s music can sound to me a little monotonous at times so I appreciated Kaufmann’s variety in tone color. I still haven’t figured out what in tarnation the secret of “La Vie Antérieure” could be, maybe I should write this M. Baudelaire and ask him. (Sorry if you could not tell I’m writing this after some wine.)

The naturalness and comfort of his Strauss made the Duparc sound downright studious. Strauss has this way in his songs and sometimes his operas of careening towards high As and Bs that sends most non-soprano singers for a total train wreck (it being difficult to careen up towards something)

from “Schlechtes Wetter”

but Kaufmann treats them like they’re not only the easiest thing but the best thing to show off his excellent and powerful high notes. “Befreit” might be sappy but it’s a song that always gets to me and as I said on Twitter afterwards that this particular rendition left me like a 13-year-old who has just seen The Notebook, I am not kidding here. These were mostly not witty Strauss songs (though we got one of those in the encores) but their big expression and sweeping romanticism were a good fit for the giant hall.

I have not mentioned Helmut Deutsch’s piano playing up to this point, which I think is fitting. He is absolutely correct and impeccably supportive, but very much in the background. Sometimes I think a stronger hand would have been more interesting, but there was nothing to object to by any means (except the clunker at the very end of “Cäcilie,” the final song of the program, when we got a major and a minor chord simultaneously–not a good end, and Deutsch stretched out the coda of “Breit’ über mein Haupt,” the first encore, perhaps in recompense).

Actually choosing the huge Met for his New York recital debut (as this was, amazingly) might have played rather well to Kaufmann’s strengths. He’s not working on as many levels as a Quasthoff or Gerhaher would be (I am also including the recitals I’ve seen him do in much smaller venues here), he’s doing tasteful, beautiful singing with direct expression that could reach me up in the Family Circle. So not such a bad idea at all. We got a whole cartload of encores, all Strauss (the highlight of which was an impassioned “Zueignung”) up to a marvelously schmaltzy “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,” from Franz Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns, which is way less familiar here than it is with the blue-haired contingent in Austria and Germany, but still went down very well.

See you from the Tucker Gala next weekend, if not sooner.

You may also like


  1. I heard most of the second half via Sirius, whose transmission seriously sucked. But omg, Kaufmann excelled in every fach. The Duparc songs sounded lovely, beautifully phrased with an elegance that gave these often airy creations body. He's a treasure and a very smart artist. Long may he wave.

  2. Thanks so much for this–I'm sending all my friends here for an actual review of the recital as opposed to my review of the experience! I agree with your request that the next CD be Mahler although I'd love to hear more Strauss too. But is he likely to put out a CD of Winterreise before he sings it in Munich next summer? Or after?

  3. Loved your review. Glad to hear that it was possible for Kaufmann to be in even better voice than he was in July- I was there too then- he sounded glorious already!
    I loved the Duparc- I could not believe my ears especially during Phydilé, what mesmerizing, tender singing and playing. But then again if I had heard not only Befreit but also Cäcilie AND Morgen afterwards, like you did at the Met, I suppose I'd feel also that the Duparc paled in comparison.
    The main thing I didn't feel the way you did about was Helmut Deutsch's playing- I find him incredible and a very interesting accompanist with such a wealth of tonal colors that Mr. Kaufmann would have been the poorer with anyone else (hearing him sing Liszt with Barenboim recently proved to me what an incredible and fruitful partnership Kaufmann has with Deutsch. It just wasn't as magical with Barenboim). Together JK and HD play with the music and recreate something new every time. I think that HD's greatness lies in the fact that he's so flexible, disappears when necessary and drives the drama when the piano is called for it.