on 26 March 2014
“Winterreise” (D 911), Franz Schubert’s cycle (1797-1828) on poems by Wilhelm Müller, is a musical drama that can be read as the story of a young man, desperate on account of a lost love who travels through a winter landscape, and also as the discovery of the desolation of a man, expressed in the description of the climate, finding the ultimate realities. It is, therefore, a cycle about death, perceived as longing and rest. Death, in this case, replaces what has been lost; the further the young man distances himself from his love, the further he distances himself from his life. A really deep sea in 24 songs; an open sea of feeling.
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann addresses this huge work from emotion and his wager renews each Lied for our time and works as catharsis. It purifies, in a sense. His many nuanced voice, to which he confers abysmal meanings, builds an environment that is essentially meditative and dreamlike, as if the “moment” in which it is produced were the one which precedes death, in which a whole life or the most important things in it are recapitulated. He insists on solitude and in the option to finish once for all.
“Gute nacht” (Good night) is the first poem and it begins with the word “Fremd”, stranger, because as such we come into the world and into love. Kaufmann reveals right from the start the state of dejection of the wanderer, whom he will move through pain and fury, showing the understandable weakness of his pleas, as in “Die Wetterfahne” (The Weather-vane): Was fragen sie nach meinen Schmerzen? (Why should you worry about my suffering?).
The piano, in the miraculous hands of Helmut Deutsch, draws the notes that describe “Gefrorne Tränen” (Frozen Tears) and Jonas Kaufmann resorts to alchemy in the question “Dass ich geweinet hab?” (Have I cried?) to tell us that he has done so and that the drops that fall from his eyes are so warm that they freeze “like the cold water of dawn” (“wie kühler Morgentau”). His voice seems that of a bass-baritone in “Ei Tränen, meine Tränen” (Oh tears, my tears), as it sinks into the depths —how low can he sing? — in “Des ganzes Winters Eis!” (All the Winter’s Ice). The use of appoggiatura in the words “Tränen” (tears), “Eise” (ice) and “Brust” (breast) highlight the intense perturbation of the young man.
Love gets mixed up with anger in “Erstarrung” (Numbness), and the proposed journey passes through the stations of annoyance-anger-pain-longing. Pain reigns and Kaufmann gives us to understand that the young traveler prefers to sing that pain because if he silences his suffering, who will talk to him about her? It is a way of seizing for himself, of owning, something that does not exist except in the wishes of his mind.
Schubert adopts Monteverdi in this cycle; his songs are the romantic reflection of the stile rappresentativo. “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) may be the best expression of this, both because the declamatory style triumphs and because there is a dominant tone of remembrance. It is Helmut Deutsch’s piano that murmurs melancholy while Kaufmann comments “Du fändest Ruhe dort” (There you will find peace) and asks with his voice if it is possible to find happiness by reliving the past. The answer is “No”.
“Wasserflut” (Torrent) provides the contrast between the fluid vocal line and the restless piano. Helmut Deutsch, remarkable! There are beautiful ascending lines, made for the tenor’s lyricism, who finds a new climax in the word “Weh” (affliction). In “Auf dem Flusse” (On the river), he rebukes the “wild” (wilder) river that has become quiet and confusing when he asks “Mein Herz, in diesem Bache /Erkennst du nun dein Bild?” (Heart of mine, do you recognize your image in this stream?). “Rückblick” (Retrospect) shows the struggle between the lark and the nightingale —that once tormented Romeo and Juliet—, and here joy identifies itself with unreality. From the piano, Helmut Deutsch says that the dream will not happen; it is an “Irrlicht” (Will o’the wisp), title of the following song which tells us that “Every current finds its sea, / Every sorrow its tomb” (Jeder Strom wird’s Meer gewinnen, / Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab”.
There is weariness in “Rast” (Rest), where the piano once more begs for some hope until we get to “Frühlingstraum” (Dream of Springtime), with Kaufmann amid a dreamy meditation in which he sighs “Ich träumte von Lieb um Liebe” (I dreamt of love for love) just before “Einsamkeit” (Solitude) makes him become aware of the void. “Die Post” (The Post), with its implacable bar of silence after the first verse, confirms again the absence, a key to turn to for “Der greise Kopf” (The grey head), where the death wish is explicit: Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre! (How long now until the coffin!).
“Die Krähe” (The crow) represents evil omens and brings death mixed up with the young man’s obsession with fidelity, and “Letzte Hoffnung” (Last Hope) reverses the meaning because we know that there is nothing to hope for; that is why the leaves float on falling and that is why the voice rises through the staff to fall immediately one octave. In “Im Dorfe” (In the Village), the barking dogs are the conflicting forces that assail in life, and “Der stürmische Morgen” (The Stormy Morning) is the perfect climate for the young man’s feelings, whose heart is torn by the “Täuschung” (Deception).
“Der Wegweiser” (The Signpost) is the song that raises the unanswered whys, expressing something which seems to come from Jonas Kaufmann’s own soul, fully portrayed in the phrase “Ohne Ruh’ und suche Ruh” (Relentlessly seeking Rest). The tenor himself, the same as the young wanderer, chooses hidden paths that others do not follow. When he gets to “Das Wirtshaus” (The Inn), the signs indicate that all the rooms have been taken; death still does not want him. What beauty in his voice when he says “Bin matt zum Niedersinken / bin tödlich schwer verletzt” (I am weak enough to lie, deathly wounded). That is why “Mut !” (Courage) comes next, sudden —and final— joy bound with some courage and strength. A decision to commit suicide? It is likely: “Will kein Gott auf Erden sein, / sind wir selber Götter” (If there is no God on Earth, / we ourselves are gods!”).
We must behold the beauty of “Die Nebensonnen” (The Phantom Suns), maybe because we cannot explain what those “Drei Sonnen” (Three Suns) the traveler talks about, mean. The symbol here is a mystery and the tenor, in a final stupor, begs for that “darkness where I will be much better” (Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein). It is what precedes the “encounter” with “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), where Kaufmann dominates with his tenderness and confirms his decision to let himself be taken away: “Will you accompany my songs with your lyre?” (Willst zu meinen Liedern / deine Leier drehn?”).
on 9 April 2014
I am well acquainted with Kaufmann's superb performances in opera but I approached his journey into lieder with some trepidation. I need not have worried!. The superb voice was there in abundance but his complete understanding of the text and his wonderful interpretation of each song with their differing nuances was masterful. Helmut Deutsch was the perfect accompanist and contributed massively to the successful project.
I have heard many previous versions of this famous song cycle by some excellent artists including Dietrich Fischer Diskau but, to my mind, none has approached this latest attempt and, certainly, none have reduced me to tears at the end. Thank-you Jonas Kaufmann.
May we expect Tristan within the next couple of years?
Any singer contemplating "Winterreise" must ask himself, I imagine, what his particular vocal qualities might bring to a fresh rendering of this great cycle. Jonas Kaufmann, it turns out, has the sweetness, the attention to the text, the legato, the breath control, and the dynamic control of the best tenor versions (Schreier, Pregardien, and Protschka), but he also has what they do not -- the power of a Parsifal or Lohengrin -- and one wondered how he would deploy that power (or if he would) and to what expressive effect. Well, he deploys it wonderfully well, and he brings anew to the listener's attention parts of songs and details of phrasing that one had never heard brought to life in that way before. The bitterness of the singer has a bite of anger in Kaufmann's account that isn't quite matched in other versions, and he risks a rawness at the very end of "Der Leiermann" that gives an edge to the sentiment and self-pity. The power works wonders too with "Die Wetterfahne" and "Die Sturmische Morgen" that made these songs new to me. "Das Wirtshaus" too is totally involving. And yet, in those songs where Fischer-Dieskau and Schreier excel -- "Lindenbaum" and "Fruhlingstraum," for example -- Kaufmann too can break the heart with soft, long-breathed, tonally beautiful singing.
You really can't have too many good "Winterreisen." Baer, Hotter, and Goerne deserve mention too (sorry, Pears and Quasthoff fans). Helmut Deutsch is an alert partner here, now calming down the angry singer, and at other times seconding the outbursts. He's very well recorded, and Kaufmann's voice is well placed in relation to the piano. All in all, a very distinguished account, highly recommended.
This recording of the ultimate Schubert challenge for singers gives us a great performance by Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch. You imagine the traveller awe-inspiringly haggard and drawn like an expressionist figure, and the rough, sombre edge to Kaufmann's voice emphasises the dark palette of the songs. They are like 24 pieces of a jigsaw that shows the very portrait of the soul of one rejected in love and disconsolate, and each piece fills out an aspect of despair, while bothering little with concrete details as a realist would want. Schubert is at his most ineffably sad, and sometimes fierce, both of which Kaufmann captures to perfection. He and Deutsch have apparently been playing the cycle for several years, and you feel this is music they have travelled with themselves. Rather than an essay the notes take the form of an interview with both of them, in which there is an interesting divergence in how they read the last song about the hurdy-gurdy man. The music itself is ambiguous and strange enough in this song to be read in a number of ways, so you can't feel quite sure of where the traveller is left ... I'm sure there are many other remarkable versions - I have most recently listened to Kurt Moll (very deep) and Barbara Hendricks (affecting, although presumably not quite the sound Schubert had in mind). Both are very good but I would say Kaufmann is totally outstanding, and I doubt whether many can match him for rough-hewn vocal timbre allied to refinement in the way he gets the intensity of the songs. It brings tears to the eyes, and not from the cold!
A long review would be superfluous; this recording is every bit as good as we Kaufmann admirers had predicted - and in some ways better, as in addition to the power, beauty and colourific variety of his supple tenor, the singer has brought a new subtlety and insight to his interpretation of this most challenging of song cycles. It is also true that his long-time accompanist, Helmut Deutsch, seems inspired by their partnership to produce pianism of the utmost delicacy and control.
I recently reviewed another equally recommendable recording from Florian Boesch. His light but powerful baritone and Kaufmann's dark-hued tenor are not so very different, although obviously Boesch uses lower transpositions and the voice that Kaufmann has always most resembled is that of his predecessor Jon Vickers, who also recorded these songs but after so much Wagner singing, did not have the advantage of Kaufmann's flexibility. The tenor voice remains the ideal medium for this cycle, otherwise the piano, which spends so much time down in the deeper reaches of the instrument, can sound a tad muddy and the turbulent brook is transformed into oceanic depths. The technical balance and artistic collaboration between singer and pianist here are, alongside Martineau and Boesch, both the best on record; much of the time the listener is aware and appreciative of the conscious restraint they exercise to create the requisite winter chill
Let's briefly rehearse Kaufmann's gifts: pellucid diction, wonderful legato, seamless messa di voce and smooth dynamic transition, almost shocking reserves of power when required - as in the last line of the opening stanza of "Die Wetterfahne", when he thunders out "sie pfiffen den armen Flüchtling aus" - and of course a dreamily beautiful tenor voice, with a hint of huskiness flecked with gold.
Kaufmann is often prepared to drain that beautiful voice of colour and vibrato to underline the stark despair and increasing alienation of the despaired lover from the world. He magically conjures up the simultaneously seductive and faintly menacing voice of nature, as the trees, the will-o'-the-wisp and the crow beckon to him: "Kom her zu mir, Geselle, /hier findst du deine Ruh!" Everything here is natural and unforced; the extreme, alternating strophic mood-swings of "Frühlingstraum" are effortlessly encompassed without any superfluous histrionics.
By the time we reach the final song, we are experiencing the full and authentic effect of catharsis whereby the lover's sadness transcends its tragic conclusion to achieve an unearthly beauty.
Of course you'll buy this.
P.S. for a flavour of the intensity behind this recording, watch the promotional video on Kaufmann's website.
Written for the tenor voice I think the cycle is IMHO more suited to the baritone, but of course Jonas Kaufmann has voice that is ideally suited being dark in timbre and an ability to convey emotion that evades other tenors. It goes without saying that his diction and intonation are beyond reproach and his interpretation reflects the effort and study he puts into his preparation. He delivers this cycle with what I can only describe as a 'beauty' and clarity which is reinforced by Helmut Deutsch's insightful and sympathetic piano playing based on their intimate working relationship.... has in fact the student now become the master? I can only compare this recording to my previous personal favourite the Vickers/Schaaf one. However I believe this recording is overall more rewarding to listen too.
The technical and engineering quality of this recording is excellent and what you would expect from Sony. I played the CD first then ripped it to FLAC for playing from my media server and I cannot tell the difference.
This recording is right on so many levels and continues to support Mr Kaufmann's position as today's leading Tenor with only Joseph Calleja of a similar caliber. I actually now listen to as much Kaufmann as Bjorling and more than Domingo or Pavarotti. .
on 25 April 2014
For me Franz Schubert is the greatest composer who has ever written music. Lots of others run him close (J. S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Mahler, Shostakovich - the list goes on) but in a short life of 31 years Schubert produced a wealth of sublime music. These songsare wonderfully sung by Kaufmann, one of the latest in a long line of interpreters. He conveys the mood of sadness and loss brilliantly and is accompanied with the right restraint and empathy by Helmut Deutsch.
on 26 February 2014
This winter, as ever, we have been treated to yet more accounts of Schubert's Beckettian song-cycle Winterreise. And I have no doubt that, in terms of sheer popularity, Jonas Kaufmann's new recording on Sony – how much did the technology multinational pay to lure him over from Decca? – will be the most popular. And with all the glories of Kaufmann's voice on offer, if in slightly shorter supply than on his recording of Die schöne Müllerin, you can hear why. But it's up against some serious musical and psychological competition with Gerald Finley's performance on Hyperion. And in my humble opinion, it's this latter disc that proves the real deal.
Kaufmann is an opera singer. He fills spaces as vast as the Met with roles such as Lohengrin and Parsifal and, no doubt, Siegfried and Otello will follow. He's also proved a remarkable performer of Lieder, not least in his Harmonia Mundi disc of Strauss songs with pianist Helmut Deutsch, who has been Kaufmann's steadfast accompanist for a while. It's eight years, however, since that Strauss disc first appeared and what succeeds in those proto-dramatic Lieder, prefiguring the composer's burst into operatic glory, doesn't translate to Schubert's equally potent but perhaps more muted works.
I noted when Kaufmann performed Die schöne Müllerin at Wigmore Hall in November 2010 that his was a strapping interpretation of the piece, a quality that had certainly translated from his 2009 disc. The same issue creeps into this Winterreise. While force and anger are certainly part of the journey, they should not become the be-all and end-all. And yet Kaufmann's diction, the focus of the low and mid voice and the sheer muscularity of his performance are winning qualities in themselves.
But where, oh where, is the existential crisis that is so essential to this cycle's narrative? Listening to the disc, I longed for the Lear-like remonstrations of Florian Boesch, as well as the broken melancholy of Padmore (to say nothing of their truly august predecessors in this repertoire). And there is always the problem of Kaufmann's top notes. They either ring too loud – no doubt thrilling for those who have bagged a ticket for his live performance at the Royal Opera House next month – or they trip into an ever huskier mezzo voce.
I adore the 'baritonal' attributes of Kaufmann's voice, perfect in many ways for this piece – and Deutsch plays superbly, if a little fussily, throughout – but the emotional range is just not extreme enough. He simply doesn't delineate genuine get-up-and-go and the delirious muscularity of the later songs, such as 'Mut!'. That emotional uniformity is exacerbated by his seeming unwillingness to go to the darkest recesses of his soul for many of the songs which require a more febrile approach. You don't go on this journey to feel moderately exhausted; it should absolutely wreck you.
How welcome then are the subtleties and severities of Finley's performance with Julius Drake. Finley is also an opera singer, now including Hans Sachs and Amfortas in his repertoire. And yet, unlike Kaufmann, he is brilliantly able to temper his voice to individual situations. This is not an opera singer 'doing' Lieder, this is a singer who is entirely at home in both. Psychologically acute, superbly paced, Finley's performance, for me, wins hands down.
Rather than mezzo voce we get eerie, shivering whispers. Even the opening phrases of 'Gute Nacht' are ambiguous. The song begins as a story and then, we realise, it has become a confession. And unlike Deutsch's rushed introduction to 'Der Lindenbaum', we get something rhapsodic from Julius Drake. It allows us to enjoy the image for a while, before it cruelly turns into a hallucination. All of this is aided superbly by Hyperion's more intimate production.
But Finley pushes these boundaries too. The nerve-wracking 'des gazen Winters Eis!' at the end of 'Gefrorne Tränen' is suitably stentorian. But while 'Mut!' also returns to a more strident dynamic, the tone has manifestly changed. Here Finley employs a forte entirely befitting the more despondent mood of the end of the cycle. It is a cruelly lusty recollection of former glories, rather than a mere repeat. Such calibrations of tone and texture make all the difference, with the abject, breathy close to Finley's performance just another highlight in this veritable masterclass.
on 24 February 2014
There has been for long quite a tradition that of the two W. Muller song cycles Winterreise and Die Schone Mullerin that the former was the `baritone's pet'. Apart from the fact that the song cycle premiered in a `baritone' version, the character and colouring of the cycle have much to commend it to baritone or baritonal voices.
Throughout the 20th century, most of the illustrious interpretors of this work were baritones rather than tenors: Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter, and if, in the rarer cases, sung by women, mezzo-sopranos and contraltos.
The 20th century lieder expert Erik Werba advocated that lieder be sung whatever key that suit the singers most. Transpositions are freely allowed. Inevitably, baritones gradually got a quasi-monopoly of this song cycle over tenors.
While there are a number of outstanding tenor interpretors of this cycle (C. Pregardien, W. Gura, P. Schreier, to name but three), they have been some what `shaded' behind the two great baritones; Prey and Fischer-Dieskau.
When tenor Jonas Kaufmann announced that he and his pianistic partner Helmut Deutsch will release this cycle, it really caused quite a stir in this relatively dwindling field of lieder. Those have their fingers crossed count upon the musical intelligence, vast experience and expertise of this couple in this genre, and most particularly, the timbre of Herr Kaufmann, which is an uniquely dark tenor voice with sufficient `bite' for this song cycle's deepest emotional demands, as amply proved in his operatic outings in Wagner.
Kaufmann sung Schubert as one of the mainstays in his repertoire (he has recorded Schubert operas as well as lieder), and he proves that he ranks among the very best interpretors of Schubert yet again in this recording of Winterreise. He and Deutsch set a beautiful pulse for the first part of the song cycle, a pulse stable yet never flaccid, expressive yet never dragging. The importance of this `pulse' can never be underestimated in this song cycle, depicting a lovelorn man drudging along the snowy path as he narrates his plight song after song: setting this beautiful pace already meant more than half the success. On top of this wonderful pace, the singer and the pianist are able to paint the different scenes with various sound pictures, some thing to which the listeners to this recording must gasp in awe and in utter unexpectedness.
Kaufmann infuses his keen sense of drama into the pieces with marvelous tone painting, some thing so ill-affordable by many other tenors who do not happen to own as luscious and rich a timbre as Kaufmann. Any possible trace of the `Sesame Kermit' sound of Kaufmann is totally absent here, and he sings in the most rounded and best resonated tone throughout. Kaufmann instills the most intricate of emotional nuances into the pieces that the listeners are left with nothing but utter awe.
Here, Deutsch matches Kaufmann point by point, in pieces like Ruckblick, Irrlicht, Rast, and many other instances, one senses that there are not two people performing but just one.
Of course, Sony is to be commended for putting up a most sensitive and alert acoustic system for this great performance. The dynamic ranges are exceptionally handled, as for instance in the Fruhlingstraum, where the whispering dreamy words as well as the passionate outbusts are fully captured in their widely diverging volume spectrum.
The singing of course gets more and more bleak and desperate as the cycle moves on. Kaufmann is truly expert in depicting such mental state with his dark and almost relentless sounding voice. If the audience has been mesmerized thus far, in the second half of the cycle, they are drawn into the protagonist's despair. In the very opening piece Die Post, Kaufmann's vehement questionings of his `heart' sets the mood vividly. The desolate piano introduction of Der greise Kopf tells the audience in no uncertain terms that the protagonist's love is doomed. Kaufmann bleaches his tone here to a bare sprechgesang, so much so that the ensuing piece Die Krahe is almost a premonition of death. Listen to Kaufmann's ultra-bitter `bald als Beute hier meinen Leib zu fassen?' here.
Such bitterness permeates the second part of the song cycle, with the dog barks in `Im Dorge', and fatal meandering in `Der Wegweiser' culminating in `Das Wirshaus', the destination of death for the protagonist.
The last three songs sound like the most poignant accusations of life by the protagonist with Kaufmann's soul-wrenching treatment. The last Der Leiermann simply float into the air.
What do we get in the 21st century lieder circle? Perhaps, Kaufmann and Deutsch have given the world the answer - the best Winterreise cycle ever.
on 21 April 2014
I bought this record because I am generally fond of Jonas Kaufman voice and art of interpretation. In this case I was certainly not let down by either BUT Kaufman has not displaced in my ranking what I still consider the towering Winterreise, that recorded in 1972 by Fischer Diskau and Gerald Moore. (An interpretation worth listening to is the 1955 mono version by Hans Hotter and Gerald Moore) Why the Fischer Diskau version? For a very simple reason: it "moves" me more than any other I have had a chance to listen to.
I should recommend Kaufman only as a worthwhile addition to a "portfolio" of Schubert's lieder recordings.