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Tuesday 8 April 2014

Jonas Kaufmann Recital at ROH (and Christiane Karg at Wigmore Hall)


I didn't quite know what to expect coming to Jonas Kaufmann's and Helmut Deutsch's ROH Winterreise. Would the venue be suitable for such an intimate work? Would Kaufmann, magnificent artist though he is, be the right interpreter for this piece? Kaufmann and Deutsch both took a while to warm up I thought, the first few songs perfectly well performed, but not terribly personal. Kaufmann's voice was fairly muted throughout the evening, though there was a baritonal harshness in these early songs which gave way to ever more sensitive and delicate use of head voice as the recital continued. No.12, Einsamkeit, was painfully intimate and still, and signalled to me the beginnings of a special intensity which both artists dipped into regularly until the end of the recital. Plenty of brightness was offered by Deutsch's light touch at the piano, like Kaufmann rarely rising above a mezzo forte, making the most of the more hopeful songs. The opening of No.21, Das Wirtshaus, had a glowing, harmonium like sonority that charmed and moved. The final few songs had the audience rapt, and showed the strength of the cumulative effect that this performance achieved. Overall I can't describe this as a completely wonderful traversal of this masterpiece - I was sitting in the amphitheatre, and not quite enough line, colour and contrast was reaching us, with the result that things often verged on the bland. Certainly a large part of this was to do with the inappropriateness of the venue for the piece (I've often wondered why the superstar artists don't just do several dates at the Wigmore? Wishful thinking: maybe they prefer the enormous financial reward of the larger venues!) but I think there's a slight discomfort (stylistic as much as technical) with Kaufmann in all this quiet, head voice singing - when he engaged the baritonal heft for the loud parts, it seemed to come out of nowhere a bit and created a choppy effect, and lovely, cultivated and masterful though the vocal control is for lieder singing, it never seemed to flow with the same smoothness as does his operatic singing.

In some ways, heresy though it might be to say it, I have enjoyed Kaufmann's recorded work more so far than when I have seen him live - the dark power of the voice is far more impressive up close, and the microphone captures every nuance and sculpted phrase that this exceptionally intelligent artist lavishes his interpretations with. In the theatre I have sometimes found the vocal cover a little too safe sounding, and I think the voice is not actually quite big enough to be fully satisfying in the most heroic Verdi and Wagner roles that he sings - the dark colour and his superb technique mean that he gets away with it, the more so on record, where even his Siegfried sounds wonderful, but I always feel slightly underwhelmed live.

The coughing from the audience was absolutely ridiculous, even by London audience standards, frequent during the songs, but erupting in a cataclysmic barrage as soon as the last chords were struck in each song, often obscuring Deutsch's introduction in the next song. I can't imagine how distracting and disconcerting this must have been to the performers. I don't think people know what a stifled cough is. I don't know what the solution is. Do people need a demonstration like you get at the beginning of an aeroplane flight? I'm really not joking.

Earlier that day I attended a wonderful little recital by Christiane Karg with Malcolm Martineau. "Little" only in duration, this was an immense programme in terms of breadth, vocal resources and demands on both artists. We started with Schoeck, a single song called Nachruf, wonderful to hear this most underrated of all composers played with such style, and the Wolf selection from the Spanisches Liederbuch followed in the same vernal, fresh mode. Debussy's Cinq Poemes De Baudelaire were performed by Karg with an almost cabaret style daring and sexyness, real levity and sensuousness, the feeling of jazz not a million miles off. Schoenberg's 4 Lieder op.2 were another welcome addition in such a beautiful performance, wonderfully indulgent and wiltingly overwrought as this early set of songs are. The final Strauss numbers - Lieses Lied, Allerseelen, Befreit - were glistening jewels that crowned the recital - Karg seems destined to sing this music with her wonderful textual acuity and silvery sound allied to soaring vocal warmth and bloom when required. Very often there was a truly uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the timbre, that smiling headvoice shimmer that is so particular to Schwarzkopf. At 33, Karg is still right at the beginning of her career, and I think she could be one of the great lieder singers. Why is there always a but?! My only concern, and it's a big one because it marred my enjoyment of virtually every number before the Strauss songs, is that during quiet singing the voice does not sound fully supported (lovely though the delivery remains) and the switch to fully supported "whole body" singing is just so obvious - way more overtones are activated and it sounds like a superstar soubrette voice rather than simply an extremely talented soubrette voice. You can sort of hear it even on CD (an excellent Strauss recital is about to be released). This is exactly what Brigitte Fassbaender was very focussed on during her wonderful recent Wigmore Hall masterclasses, and in idle fantasy on the way to the Kaufmann recital I was thinking how great it would be for her to fix this final small thing with Karg, one great lieder singer to another. I hope Karg gets help with this from someone as if she does she will easily be one of my absolute favourite singers (though she hardly needs my approval!) Malcolm Martineau was quite brilliant at the piano throughout the recital - he seems to get this ultra late romantic music to a tee - articulating every note with exceptional clarity and beauty, but also giving it the space and sonority it needs to breathe. He was on very good form indeed and clearly enjoys performing with Karg very much.


  1. Concerning coughing, it was Sir Thomas Beecham who said that snipers should be posted in the opera house ( probably in recital halls as well ). That would take care of the problem. Love it

  2. It is remarkable how many audience members don't understand the importance of silence between songs in a cycle.