Jonas Kaufmann’s miller in Jersey

A number of New Yorkers stopped making fun of New Jersey for long enough to go hear Jonas Kaufmann sing Die schöne Müllerin in Princeton last night (at least judging by the small mob headed towards the Dinky at the end). It was worth it: this was a really great performance, and surprisingly  different from his recording of a few years ago. On the whole, this one was far more interesting (and the recording is not bad!).

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano
. Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin. McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1/17/2013.

I should first say that unlike at Kaufmann’s Met recital and last summer’s Winterreise, this time I actually sat close enough for a proper Lieder experience (and this theater was much smaller, as well), so that might be part of the reason I thought it was so good. You pick up a lot more at close range; this rep wasn’t written for people in the Family Circle.

Kaufmann fully identifies with the miller character rather than going for the slight narrative detachment or touch of ironic commentary of many lieder singers. This might make his Müllerin more compelling than his Winterreise—the miller goes through a much more drastic transformation and range of moods. This was a compelling journey with a not-so-stable character, delivered with beautiful musicality, excellent diction, and an engagingly natural and outgoing stage presence that supported his embodied (rather than narrated) interpretation.

It might be a little hard to buy Kaufmann’s Heldentenor-tending voice as the rather wimpy and tentative miller boy. What hunter wouldn’t run if faced with his mighty high Gs in “Der Jäger”’s “kehrt um”? And the burly heft of the arpeggios in the “Was ich hebe, was ich trage” section of “Am Feierabend” belied this first line of the stanza, “Ach, wie ist mein Arm so schwach!” Peter Pears or Mark Padmore he ain’t. (Not that Padmore can’t work up a good bellow when he wants to, but he uses the visible strain and effort expended for dramatic effect. With Kaufmann there is no obvious effort.) But it makes sense once you think of it as an internal monologue; the miller’s frustrations can be scaled to a Heldentenor range of desperation. And most of this was delivered at a moderate to soft dynamic level, with big voice moments being the exception.

I really liked what Helmut Deutsch did with the piano part, producing a smoothly-flowing brook that never clunked but shifted colors and textures very subtly. Kaufmann was also subtle and varied, particularly in the strophic songs, where he followed the narrative of the text through the repeating music. His miller started off earnest and curious but already by “Dankgesang an den Bach,” the first sign of the girl, less enchanted than perturbed. “Der Neugierige” was one of the highlights of the cycle, the first two stanzas halting and broken, the rest slow and sustained.

The “Dein ist mein Herz” refrain of “Ungeduld” got a varied treatment from soft to thundering, and you got the feeling that the affection between the miller and his would-be girlfriend had never really been mutual. “Des Müllers Blumen” showed a smooth legato, and “Mein!” returned to a kind of rushed desperation. Some of the grace notes may have been sacrificed for the sake of Lohengrin (but in the video linked above Peter Pears misses a few of them as well).

After “Pause,” the rest was pretty much bleak. He already seemed to suspect that green was trouble from its first appearance (it was at this point that I realized I had subconsciously chosen a green sweater that morning–must be reading Intermezzo too much), and “Der Jäger” and “Eifersucht und Stolz” were taken at a rapid pace. “Trockne Blumen” I found most interesting. The final, E major section is often treated as a euphoric vision of the afterlife–the dead flowers in the miller’s grave are transformed into blooming ones, which remind the girl of his faithfulness to her–here the flowers served as a vengeful, nasty reminder that she done him wrong. This miller isn’t about to forgive his (mostly imaginary) girlfriend so easily.

This even extended to “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” mostly done in hushed mezza voce but becoming vehement at “hinweg, hinweg.” Apparently the brook isn’t forgiving either, though very end was more peaceful. Unusually, we got an encore, which was the eminently appropriate “Der Jüngling an der Quelle,” another boy contemplating watery abandonment, with the attendant rippling piano figures.

A really absorbing and interesting performance, and probably the best Liederabend I’ve heard from Jonas Kaufmann.

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  1. It sounds like Kaufmann's portrayal of the miller has traces of his Don José in it… a rare thing in Lieder, based on my experiences! Such an absorbing artist he is!

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I couldn't figure out any realistic way to be in Princeton on Thursday night and be at work from 9-5 in the DC area on Thur. and Fri. Your description makes me feel almost as if I were there.

    Thanks again for sharing about the concert, and I am so glad for YOU that you got to hear/see this performance!!