My touchstones for this wonderful song cycle have always been the recorded performances of Aksel Schiøtz accompanied by Gerald Moore - an incomparable, vintage account, but obviously in hissy, mono 1945 sound - the delectable sibling team of Ian and Jennifer Partridge in a speedy, thistledown-light 1973 CfP disc and, in pure vocal terms, Fritz Wunderlich's 1966 version which is unfortunately compromised by stodgy, unimaginative pianism. All three of these tenors are demonstrably lighter and brighter than Kaufmann and thus capable of injecting more fantasy into the quieter, higher passages; Kaufmann, with his baritonal timbre must work far harder to achieve a delicacy and poignancy which come more easily to his tenor forebears. He also has to work harder to fine down his big sound and achieve intimacy in the big, resonant acoustic given to him by Decca; at times, especially in the earlier, exuberant or declamatory songs he seems a little crude alongside the poise of, say, Schiøtz. He does not really have the right vocal "face" for this music but does wonders with the voice he has, even if it is not as intrinsically beautiful as others.
One thing is certain: Helmut Deutsch draws upon his vast experience to provide some of the most fluid, fluent and subtle acccompaniment we have heard for years in this deceptively simple music; he is alive to every nuance of phrasing and dynamics and matches his singer with unfailing sensitivity.
My first listening of this disc prompted an odd sensation of dejà-vu. I do not mean that necessarily as a criticism, but Kaufmann's vocal characteristics are so individual that I knew how he would sound in this music before I heard it: the husky, slightly "windy" Vickers-style production of his mezza-voce, the long breath, the baritonal heft the perfect German diction, are all very welcome - but I am sometimes more aware of listening to Kaufmann than I am to Schubert, if you follow me; some effects sound a little calculated compared with the simplicity these folk-songs require. He also sounds decidedly ill-at-ease in the near Sprechstimme of "Die Jäger", which at this speed requires a fleetness beyond him. I think if I did not have an attachment to the older recordings mentioned above, this could be a first choice as long as you favour his style, but I cannot in all honesty say that I find Kaufmann's larger scale delivery as moving or affecting as his predecessors. It is still a lovely performance by perhaps the best tenor before the public today and conforms to my (and, according to the liner notes, Kaufmann's) conviction that this cycle is far better delivered by a tenor than a baritone. Who could believe that one of the reasons why Kaufmann chose to record it was that he is already forty and wanted to capture his interpretation while his voice still encompassed youthful ardour? He certainly does that and, in addition, manages a welcome degree of yearning melancholy. His fans will not be disappointed.
PS: What marketing genius at Decca sanctioned the tacky cover photo?