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Extracts from Ludwig van Beethoven (Fidelio), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Die Zauberflöte), Franz Schubert (Fierrabras, Alfonso und Estrella) and Richard Wagner (Lohengrin, Parsifal, Die Walküre)

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Margarete Joswig (mezzo-soprano), Michael Volle (bass-baritone), Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma Marco Finucci (Chorus Master), Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado (Conductor)
Recorded in Parma (December 2008) – 69’27
Decca 478 1463 – Booklet in English with English translations of the German texts

As I write this review, Jonas Kaufmann is in the process of conquering New York. His rapturously received performances at the Metropolitan Opera in Tosca reveal an artist at the height of his powers, as accomplished dramatically as he is vocally. The excitement surrounding his two upcoming performances in Carmen is widespread. Tickets on the internet are fetching as much as ten times the official price. Kaufmann is no flash in the pan. He’s been singing professionally for twenty years. But since his debut at the Met in 2006, he has become a lot more visible – and audible. He has recently recorded three CD’s for Decca, two of which (this one and a live recording of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin) were released in America this month. A fourth, featuring a selection of verismo arias, reportedly is on the way.

Perhaps uniquely among first-rank singers, Kaufmann seems equally at home in the French and Italian opera repertoire, and in German lieder, and he is coming into his own in the full range of eighteenth and nineteenth century German opera, as represented on this marvelous disc. We hear him in roles he has sung on stage (Lohengrin, Parsifal, Tamino, Fierrabras, and Florestan) and in a role he will sing for the first time in the Met’s new Ring cycle next season, Siegmund in Die Walküre. This summer, he will make his Bayreuth debut as Lohengrin.

Kaufmann sings with a rich baritonal timber and a dark almost velvety sound. On this CD, he brings his Italianate way of singing (emphasizing beauty of line, delicacy and refinement) coupled with ample reserves of power to Mozart and to Wagner with equally felicitous results. It’s become rather a cliché to say this about singers, but Kaufmann really does inhabit his characters. Perhaps the single most expressive characteristic of his singing (on CD and in the opera house) is his extraordinary control over dynamics. Throughout the disc one finds ravishing pianissimos and superb use of messa di voce. There is something intrinsic about the latter especially that evokes a feeling of wistfulness and longing.

While at first glance, this CD seems like a compilation of disparate albeit wonderful selections from a wide range of German operas, there is, in fact, a conceptual link. When released in Germany last year, the disc was entitled “Sehnsucht” (longing). It’s actually a far richer idea than a one word translation can indicate, for it’s evocative of the questing, the yearning, and the melancholia of German romanticism. One of the key visual exponents of this movement was the painter, Caspar David Friedrich and it was thus an inspired as well as a clever choice to use as the cover image one of Friedrich’s most famous paintings with Kaufmann’s head superimposed on the lonely figure of the wanderer. With the dropping of the title, these associations could have been lost in translation. Yet they are all here, in Kaufmann’s superb depictions of sehnsucht in all its manifestations – the longing for love, for wisdom, for comfort, and for transcendence.

Usually singers seem to “progress” from Mozart to Wagner. Kaufmann, happily, does not leave Mozart behind. There are two marvelous excerpts on the disc from Die Zauberflöte. First, there is a ravishing rendition of “Dies Bildnis” in which Tamino falls in love with a portrait of Pamina. Kaufmann’s resonant timber and the full-bodied character of his voice impart an appropriate but seldom heard heroic cast to this prince who must undergo fearsome trials in his quest for wisdom.

It is both the moral ambiguity and the existential angst surrounding Tamino’s quest that Mozart conveys in “Die Weisheitslehre dieser Knaben,” an excerpt from the finale of act one, and here the fourth track on the CD. And what a wonderful surprise it is to find this sublime scene on a recital disc. After all, it’s not a proper aria. It’s long (just over ten minutes), and it requires another singer (here the excellent Michael Volle). What a treasure this performance is. It’s gloriously sung with dynamic nuance, eloquent phrasing, and perfect diction. And it’s deeply felt. Kaufmann encapsulates Tamino’s love, his longing, his fear and his hope all in one word, “vielleicht” (perhaps). This is, by far the best performance of this scene I have ever heard. It’s worth getting the disc for this track alone.

And there is so much more. Florestan’s aria is powerfully and movingly sung, and the two unfamiliar Schubert tracks are a treat. But it’s the Wagner selections that are the tantalizing taste of what Kaufmann, the Wagner singer, has done and will do on stage. The Lohengrin excerpts are especially stunning. Kaufmann draws us into the music and seems to hold us there wrapped and rapt in the sheer beauty of his voice. While he certainly has the power and the clarion tones to cut through the full orchestra, once again it is in his high soft singing, most exquisitely in the beginning of “In fernem Land,” that Kaufmann is most compelling. In this, the first track of the CD, he captures Lohengrin’s longing and regret that he must leave, and also the awe and transcendence symbolized by the power of the grail. On the second track, “Mein Lieber Schwan!” Kaufmann is utterly emotionally present, beginning with such profound sorrow and longing and ending with such deep pain one can almost see the tears in his eyes as he bids his last farewell to Elsa. The numinous last track, “Nur eine Waffe taught” from Parsifal both echoes the character of the first track and provides closure to the quest.

Throughout the disc, Claudio Abbado and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra are magnificent. They are a match for Kaufmann in their versatility, their command of the full range of musical resources, and in the sheer beauty of the sound they produce.

From start to finish, this is a CD to cherish.

Arlene Judith Klotzko




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