A Review of “Kaufmann: Wagner, Tenor Arias and Lieder”

I am not a religious person, but if God intended for Richard Wagner and Jonas Kaufmann to create beautiful Wagnerian performances, I would believe it. Jonas Kaufmann’s new CD, Kaufmann: Wagner, with orchestral accompaniment by the Orchester der Deutschen Opera Berlin and conducting by Donald Runnicles, portrays a beautiful way of telling Wagner’s stories through the appropriate moods and meaningful senses. Throughout the recording, Mr. Kaufmann shows he has this down to a science. From the desperate “Wälse!”  when in search for Nothung in the tree, to the tender sound of “In fernem Land”, Mr. Kaufmann has proven himself worthy of singing multiple Wagnerian roles and knowing the backgrounds of each character enough to enact them. This recording is a master class for moods of singing, story telling, and dynamics.

            Jonas Kaufmann has been familiar with Wagner since his childhood. He reminisced that when he was a child, his grandfather used to sit at the piano and play operatic scores of Wagner and sing all the parts, from the highest soprano to the lowest bass. Kaufmann was able to succeed in this recording not only because of his natural talent, but also because of the sentimental value that he has with Wagner’s music.

            “Ein Scwert verhieß mir der Vater” started off slowly and in the dark, assisted with the dark, German sound from the Berlin Opera Orchestra. Kaufmann quietly depicts the meaning of the sword and how his father had left it for him to find. Suddenly, with an explosion and desperation for where the sword was hiding with clear German enunciated, Kaufmann gave two very intense “Wälse!”s until the angry clouds lifted. In the recording, one could tell that Kaufmann saw the soft glow of light coming from the tree by the way he dipped his voice into a delicate sotto voce. His voice melted into the glistening of the harps and softness of the oboes, until the sword was found.

            “Daß der mein Vater nicht ist…Du holdes Voglein!” is set in the most green of forests. Each note of the strings in the Berlin Orchestra could be depicted as a flowing river or waving grass and leaves, while the woodwinds depict the creatures of the forest. Siegfried’s frustration with Mime melts away, and he is left wondering who his mother and father really were. The main focus of this aria for Kaufmann was “dreaming” or “Träume” in German. Kaufmann became the wondering, pondering Siegfried, lusting after his parents’ identity.  He especially dreamt about his mother, and Kaufmann showed a sensitivity to the text as it corresponded with the Sieglinde motifs returning from Die Walküre. The dreaming is still unbroken when the orchestra comes back in with the forest murmurs. The English Horn solo brought a bit of humor in to play, drawing us back to why Siegfried was sent in to the forest. Kaufmann came off as an innocent, pondering Siegfried, wondering what life could have been like with his parents.

            Finally, the disc leaves an excerpt from Rienzi, a Wagner opera that not many of us are familiar with. In “Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab”, Cola Rienzi has been excommunicated because of his leading a rebellion against the Roman nobles. In this aria, Rienzi pleads forgiveness from the “Almighty Father”. Kaufmann starts the aria off as a quiet, delicate prayer to the mighty Father in the sky. One can hear the plea and desire even in his delicate voice. Kaufmann then brings out a little more of his rich confidence, reminding the Father what had been given to him in the past. Kaufmann becomes more and more desperate; seeming to recognize more clearly that this is his last chance for redemption. Kaufmann then returns to the sotto voce at the line “Mein Herr und Vater, o blicke herab”, or “My Lord and Father, look down”. Kaufmann literally lowers his volume, as if to seem at a lower status, and continues to sing as if in fervent prayer.

            “Inbrunst im Herzen” contains very diverse dynamics and moods. When this aria occurs in Tannhäuser, Tannhäuser has just been denied salvation after journeying to Rome to be forgiven by the Pope. He tells his friend Wolfram about the entire journey. Kaufmann sang in an appropriately dark tone when describing the difficult journey over stone and rock. To lighten up the story, Kaufmann uses an incredible sotto voce whenever he discusses the advice that the angel gave him. His voice becomes delicate and light, as one might imagine an angel. Kaufmann returned to his dark tone until he came to the moment when the Pope told him that he did not deserve mercy or salvation. Without ugliness, Mr. Kaufmann was able to imitate the Pope. He made his lines slightly choppier, and he used a slight nasal quality in his sound, to make himself sound similar to an old, crotchety man. To finish off, Kaufmann uses his sotto voce again, thinking of how Venus will charm him and even make him feel better. Jonas Kaufmann, who has only one voice, was able to create three different voices in this ten-minute satire: A dark, disappointed Tannhäuser, an angel-inspired Tannhäuser, and an old, crotchety Pope.

            If Beckmesser was sitting in the recording studio while Mr. Kaufmann recorded “Am stillen herd”, he should not have made a single mark on his little chalkboard. This aria is another example of storytelling. When Kaufmann sang this, one pictured that he was reading a story about a man in “Winterszeit” to a group of school children. He described the story well, keeping it milder when singing about winter and getting more excited when singing about summer. The orchestra appropriately created a carpet of sound, because it is a simple aria that one would sing at a song contest, as in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Kaufmann succeeded the challenge of calling attention to himself and his singing in a performance with important consequences.

            “In fernem Land” was a master class for sotto voce. Kaufmann portrayed the deep, mysterious character of Lohengrin, a knight of the Grail. This aria is placed at the end of Lohengrin, when Elsa has asked the forbidden question of the name of the knight and where he came from. Now, he must leave on his swan and never return.  Listeners, Elsa, and even the evil Ortrud herself should be in tears at this point. The only time that we hear the rich, confident Kaufmann sound in this aria is when he discusses the Grail and his father Parsifal. He then returns to sotto voce, almost pleading to Elsa. Why had she asked him the forbidden question? In this recording, listeners are treated with the second verse of the aria, which is rarely performed onstage. Mr. Kaufmann portrays a beautiful, tender Lohengrin, as he has done onstage in Munich and in Bayreuth.

            Mr. Kaufmann, in a video released by Decca, made it clear that he knew the Wesendonck Lieder were intended to be sung by a female voice. He claims that he does not know why that is so. The text, written by Mathilde von Wesendonck, does not make it clear that it was to be sung by a woman, he points out. Kaufmann was excited to try it.

            The Wesendonck Lieder started with a delicately, tenderly sung “Der Engel”, similar to the quality in the Lohengrin section. “Stehe” was sung as if Kaufmann was placed at the top of a mountain, giving orders and waving around a magic wand. He brought out his tenderness from the diminished chords of “Ich moge alle Wonne ermessen” to the major chords of “Wenn Auge in Auge wonnig trinken”. Kaufmann made it believable that man can truly understand the ways of nature. “Im Treibhaus” begins with the sad drones of the strings that can be heard at the beginning of the third act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Kaufmann sang it delicately, depicting the divinity of nature. Delicately, Kaufmann confided in plants, that we as humans also reach out to the world for support and life, but are left with nothing. The mood sinks back into darkness as the drone of the strings washes up against an empty shore. “Schmerzen” was sung firmly, and convincingly, that humans should be satisfied that they can take in the sorrows of nature. While humans can live on through the night, the sun disappears and dies each night. Finally, the album ends with “Träume”, the familiar music of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra simply acts as a cloudy carpet of sound while the solo voice takes the stage. Listening to this particular song, one feels as if Kaufmann were sitting on the crescent of the moon, singing to the star-filled night and watching over the Earth. It is an interesting and intriguing experience hearing Jonas Kaufmann, a tenor, singing the Wesendonck Lieder.

            Jonas Kaufmann’s new recording, Kaufmann: Wagner is incredible to listen to. His ability to portray several characters and adapt to their moods and feelings knows no bounds. Mr. Kaufmann obviously pays an incredible amount of attention to the text, while still being able to focus on using dynamics and timbre to change the character. Kaufmann’s recording of Wagner tenor arias and lieder is a stunning success and serves as a prelude to what will no doubt be thrilling performances as the title character in upcoming performances of Parsifal in both New York and Vienna over the next few months.

Photo: The cover photo for Jonas Kaufmann’s new recording

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One comment on “A Review of “Kaufmann: Wagner, Tenor Arias and Lieder”

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