Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonas Kaufmann. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"Don't just sit there..."

"Don't just sit there. DO something!" The line is a popular comedy feature because of its usual subtext: the person addressing it to someone else hasn't got a clue what to do themselves.

A lot of us are just sitting there at the moment, wondering what the heck to do. We do what we can on a daily basis - taking care of the family, cooking, cleaning, shopping where possible, attempting exercise, trying to get on with any work we're lucky enough to have. I'm measuring out the weeks in the fabulous streamings from National Theatre At Home, each available for seven days from Thursdays. Tom is practising Paganini and catching up on 60 years of reading (I just gave him some Nabokov, but now can't get him to put it down and go to sleep). The cats are so well combed that they look ready to win rosettes at the Somali Cat Club Show, except that it had to be cancelled.

But there remains the deep and frustrating desire to do something positive; to make a difference in this bloody crisis; to make it all go away, or at least cheer other people up a little bit.

We each revert to type under stress, while work habits also become accentuated because they make us happy through their familiarity. Yesterday I felt happy because I had virtually a normal working day. I corresponded with an editor and a PR person about an article, selling an idea to the former, then telling the latter that I'd to do an interview (over Zoom). I started transcribing a recording of another interview, had a phone conversation with someone I'm consulting with regard to the story of a forthcoming opera libretto, watched a documentary from which I can learn about that topic, worked on a largish recordings-related project and on the side took part in a super Twitter discussion about how to conduct Tchaikovsky. And I combed Ricki, of course (Tom does Cosi). Normality makes one feel better. But of course, it is only a millimetre deep; any of this may vanish at any moment. As for personal tendencies, when things are difficult, I hide. I hole myself up in my study (back at college, it was a practice room, if and when such things could actually be found) until the danger has passed...

If someone says to me "DO something", I write, because that's my profession and represents the best of what I have to give. If you are a musician, you'll want to make music, for exactly the same reason. If you are a doctor or nurse, you will want to step up to offer your best in that department. Perhaps I am a hopeless idealist, but I think people have a natural instinct to want to help when times are tough.  That makes it depressing to see the negativity with which so many cynical misery-guts  are greeting artists' efforts to do something.

If musicians and musical organisations are giving free performances online, it's not because they are committing the evil of "self-promoting" (dear American readers, you'd be amazed to hear that a certain strata of Brits regard this as the worst of cardinal sins, rather like "being in trade, darling..."). It's not because they are trying to undercut everyone and make it impossible to earn a living henceforth because this extraordinary patch is how it's gonna be forever and forever more amen. It's possibly partly because some organisations are publicly funded and have a type of moral obligation to make their work available to the public in some form. It's also a matter of musicians staying in shape, because performing is an art in itself and it's easy to fall out of the habit, the adrenalin, the resilience.

But generally, it's because they want to do something. To give something. To give their best. Anything from a live recital - Igor Levit's regular house-concerts on Twitter are among the most popular around - to playing on the balcony for the Thursday evening Clap for Carers...


Alexandra Dariescu and Andreas Flor at home in London


Indeed, you can browse the internet and find a live broadcast of chamber music from the Budapest Festival Orchestra, or Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason playing the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata in the family home (that was wonderful), or Fenella Humphreys giving a violin recital from her front room after getting the audience to choose her programme via a Twitter poll, or the Royal Academy of Dancing offering Silver Swan ballet classes for the longer in tooth, or the live concert the other day from the Bavarian State Opera in which Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch performed Schumann's Dichterliebe to an empty theatre, which was fabulous but heartbreaking ("Music without an audience just isn't the same," Kaufmann commented to the camera afterwards).

Yes, there is a glut of stuff; yes, it is often marvellous; no, it is no substitute whatsoever for attending the real live thing in a performance space shared with the performers and 500-3000+ other people. I don't believe the digital option is something we should expect to become the be-all and end-all forever, even though the virus danger needs to be much reduced before we can think of safely attending mass events again. No, it's simply the Thin End of the Wedge, and we all know it, but we hesitate to say so, either because we're trying to be terribly positive about things, or because we are bloody terrified. Neither is a reason to malign people's intent in providing this material.

If you object to people giving their work away for free, you are correct that of course they shouldn't have to. It is well known that streaming is daylight robbery in terms of proportion of income that goes to the companies versus that to the person actually providing the material, i.e. the artist. The artists should be able to earn a decent living from their work; it is scandalous that they do not. And it's usually not their fault - they've been got over a barrel and been forced to sign away their rights (small person versus big company: 'twas ever so). Ditto writers; since the Net Book Agreement, which set the price of a book, was done away with, incomes have plummeted and the only way is down.

However, streaming on the internet in times of crisis is an issue on its own. This is a period in which household incomes are shattered and in some cases completely non-existent. Ordering your colleagues not to do free work in case they find that people get used to it and expect it forever is really not the answer (not least because it is already too late).

May I suggest something constructive?

There are a number of crowdfunding platforms online which are suitable for musicians and writers. On Buy Me A Coffee, you can ask patrons to contribute the price of a cuppa after enjoying your work. Patreon enables (I think) people to offer you a chosen amount every month. GoFundMe seems easy to use, is efficient, lets you set a target but keep whatever funds are raised even if you don't reach that amount. And there are of course many more. I recommend that musicians offering free streaming could set up an account on one of these and encourage those who can to contribute as large or small an amount as they wish. I recommend, too, that those with the means could offer as much as they can to support their preferred artists.

On a larger scale, the big companies - the National Theatre included - present a request for a donation with every streaming. Most theatres, festivals and concert halls that have had to cancel their performances will offer you the option of donating your ticket price to help the company and its artists to weather this blast, and if you feel able to do that it is a very, very good thing.

There are plenty of charities, such as Help Musicians UK, which will be massively grateful for donations and provides grants for musicians in financial trouble. You can help in all kinds of ways, and the latest is your very own Tasmingram to say it with music: Tasmin Little is offering musical video messages specially recorded for you, in aid of Help Musicians UK (it's £35, the same cost as a nice bouquet - more details here).

As for those individuals who disparage all internet music on the grounds of No Free Performance and No Internet Presence, please contribute a donation to everything you hear, watch or read, and then you won't feel so bad. Indeed, you will feel that you did something worthwhile - and quite rightly so.



Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Alive and dizzying: Die tote Stadt in Munich


We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it...
Marietta (Petersen) and Paul (Kaufmann) hold on for dear life
All photos from the Bavarian State Opera website: https://www.staatsoper.de

I'm just back from an unexpected dash to Munich to see Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera. It's always a little daunting when dreams come true; sometimes you imagine they can only disappoint and will be best avoided, which is not the least reason I hadn't got my act together about this sooner. But when a kind friend in the cast wrote to me out of the blue saying she could get me a ticket, I decided to drop everything, use my air miles and run.

Die tote Stadt was the topic of my dissertation at university, which is where my Korngold book really began to germinate. Back then - the 1980s - you'd say the name "Korngold" and nobody had heard of him; worse, though, if they had, they would give a scornful laugh because he wrote, oh dearie dearie dear, film music. I never expected to see this opera on stage at all.

Its remarkable rehabilitation over the past 25-30 years has happened despite the army of nay-sayers, some of whom still like to damn Korngold with entartete Musik terminology that could almost be out of the Goebbels playbook; the fact that the performances are getting better and better and the standing of the artists involved increasing every time suggests those dogs have maybe had their day. (The final frontier is the UK, where it surfaced once at Covent Garden around 08, only to vanish again.)

Marietta (Petersen) drives Paul (Kaufmann) up the wall

Now the opera has been championed by Kirill Petrenko, the extraordinary conductor who has been music director of the Bayerisches Staatsoper for a good while and now has the Berlin Philharmonic as well. The cast is led by Jonas Kaufmann as Paul and Marlis Petersen as Marietta. I remember rejoicing, on hearing Kaufmann's first solo CD of Strauss Lieder in 2006, that here was the perfect German romantic tenor to sing Korngold's leads, if only he would be persuaded. That was 13 years ago - but it seems I wasn't wrong.

A fresh view of an old favourite after a long time is always illuminating - especially when a piece is so expertly performed that you know you are responding to the work itself and not its misapprehension by its performers. This opera functions at such high intensity, right the way through, that you can feel afterwards as if you've been hit by a juggernaut. I can see why I fell madly in love with it when I was 20: emotionally speaking, this music is for young people, reflecting Korngold's own age and stage at the time. He began work on it while serving as musical director of his regiment in World War I; upon its simultaneous premiere in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, he was 23. Already an established superstar after a meteoric beginning as child prodigy par excellence, he wrote the lead roles for no lesser singers than Richard Tauber and Maria Jeritza, and assumed his orchestra would be so good that they'd be able to do absolutely anything.

Marietta (Petersen) taunts Paul (Kaufmann) with Marie's wig...

What is not young about it, though, is the libretto itself - and here's a whole new strand for me to explore, because when I studied the piece I looked at what the libretto does with its sources (Georges Rodenbach's Bruges la Morte and the play based upon it by Siegfried Trebitsch), but not exactly who did what, or why. "Paul Schott" was a pseudonym for the Korngolds père et fils, Julius and Erich, and of those two, Julius was the one who worked with words. It is easy to think, looking at some of his reviews (he was music critic of the Neue freie Presse, hence the most powerful in Vienna) and his unpleasant and unhinged-sounding letters to his gifted son, that Julius was simply crazy. He was, however, a very fine writer. His German is far from easy reading, but lucid translations in the relevant books, notably by Michael Haas and Brendan Carroll, show that his literary worth ran high and justifies his place and influence - even though he sometimes used these to somewhat malign ends.

Erich was a natural composer, but less so a wordsmith. He penned reams of funny and charming doggerel for his friends and family (the Exil.arte Centre in Vienna has in its collection a recording of him reading one of these verses), but when it comes to long  descriptions of a religious procession through the centre of Bruges, or an all-out "domestic" between Paul and Marietta (has there ever been such a row in any other opera?) or an overtly Freudian psychological process and extended dream driving the action - that has surely to be the hand of Julius. I am now wondering - and do not begin to know - what was driving him.



Here's is the gist of the story. Paul lives in Bruges, surrounded by medieval streets, ancient canals, the atmospheric nunnery named the Beguinerhof - all dark, shadowy repression. His wife, Marie, has died; he can't move on. He has created a shrine to her memory and in his mind the dead city of Bruges fuses with the dead woman into one strange, dominating presence. He is supported by his devoted housekeeper, Brigitta, and his one friend, Frank. Then he meets Marietta: a dancer who is the physical double of Marie, but her polar opposite in personality, all sparkle and sensuality. The virgin/whore complex of the Rodenbach original becomes, in Korngold, the battle for life against death. Paul has a dream - which takes up all of act 2 and most of act 3 - in which he sees calamity ensue when he attempts a relationship with Marietta, and in which he finally strangles her with a lock of Marie's hair. At the end he awakens to realise the danger of his state of mind. Marietta comes back to fetch her umbrella, but he lets her go. Frank persuades him to leave Bruges at last.

Trolleyed: Marietta (Petersen) and Fritz the Pierrot (Filonczyk)
The roles are huge - long, loud, high and very physical - and the orchestral writing is full of complexities and unusual instruments. Some productions have made radical cuts - I saw one that wholly omitted the sole choral scene, the religious procession early in act 3, no doubt saving ££££s - but Petrenko has gone full whack and does every note. This is the three-act version, too: in some, acts 1 and 2 are run straight through, again with the loss of a certain amount of music. I heard passages, notably in Paul's duet with Marie's ghost, that I don't think I've actually encountered before.

The production by Simon Stone was restaged by Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik from its original home in Basel, and it leaves you dizzy. There is a syndrome in opera staging that often ensues when a director is lucky enough to secure the use of a "revolve". This means the stage can spin. This feature is technically very complicated and costs a bomb. Therefore it is put to work at every available second. "We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it!" My spies tell me it's not only the audience that risks seasickness. Nevertheless, it's effective in the dream sequence at creating the bizarre, unpredictable atmosphere Paul's nightmare requires. Doors open startlingly into walls; you're never quite sure where you are; Frank takes an open-air shower on the roof; Fritz, the Pierrot, pushes Marietta around in a shopping trolley (I watched with some anxiety as it rolled free towards the edge of the stage); and in the procession Paul's house is taken over by children (his and Marie's?) helping themselves to cereal and jumping up and down on the bed, before the chorus itself is delivered in a circle on the move.

Paul (Kaufmann) and the pillow fight
More seriously, when everything does keep still, it becomes clear that Marie has died of cancer; she appears in her hospital gown, bald from chemotherapy, weak and fading in Paul's arms. The preserved hair is her wig. This makes act I the most emotionally harrowing section of the opera (certainly for me - both my parents and my sister died of cancer, the latter aged only 45, and she had a wig  - so I found this evening extremely close to the bone). That's difficult, because you need to keep something in reserve for the end; this time it comes almost as relief, rather than catharsis.

Biggest complaint, though, is that in this opera the "dead city" of Bruges is a character itself - we meet it time and again in the orchestral textures and in particular in the extended orchestral sequence that opens act 2, a truly filmic canvas unfurling the glimmering waters, the dark church towers, the tolling bells, the medieval lanes, in sound alone. But as Bruges is a character - fused with Marie - the could-be-anywhere modern apartments of the very detailed design (by Ralph Myers) slightly miss the point, unless it be that the soul of this place is somewhat dead.

The performers' characterisation and dramatic sense is fabulous. As Paul, Kaufmann is haunted and harrowed, but imperious and determined, taken to offloading laundry and cardboard boxes onto Brigitta and Frank by simply tossing them across the room. In act 2 he is straight out of a film noire, in raincoat and angled hat, casting well-placed shadows; in act 3 bewildered, desperate and goaded beyond his limits. Paul is anything but an appealing and likeable character, yet Kaufmann kept us with him through his sheer sense of disorientation and the genuineness of his lost love; when he sings the final Lute Song over a beer while burning Marie's wig and his own tie, we are grateful that Paul will recover at last. (In one other production at least, he shoots himself, which after all that intensity is a really miserable way to end the piece.)

Singing? Kaufmann - often heard elsewhere as if pacing himself and keeping heft in reserve - this time lets rip from the start. There's a Wagnerian, Siegfried-like steely edge to the tone, and a rock-solid technical strength; but tender moments, when they arrive, melt like chocolate fondue. As Marietta and Marie, Marlis Petersen could quite possibly out-Marietta Jeritza herself. She's a vivid actress, switching astoundingly between charismatic dancer and dying cancer victim both in presentation and in vocal tone. Her role is as high and loud as Paul's and her silvery tone matches the glitter of her silver dress; she brings the character a megawatt personality who nevertheless is not above pinging Paul's braces to make her point. When she triumphs in the act 2 showdown, seducing Paul into a submission as wholehearted as his earlier fury, it is no wonder she wins. There's a particularly nice touch at the end when Marietta, having come back for her umbrella, once more forgets to take it with her. Will she come back? Is this story over? We wonder...

Mezzo Jennifer Johnston is an ideal Brigitta, with warm, shining tone and deeply sympathetic characterisation: for once we can take Brigitta at face value as housekeeper and, later, a nun. The story is complicated enough without trying to turn her into something she isn't (as some productions do). Andrzej Filonczyk as Frank and Fritz is a wonderful discovery, a golden-centred baritone whose rendering of the Pierrot lied was a highlight of the performance. Together the four principals make a close-knit and convincing ensemble. Fine supporting performances from Mirjam Mesak and Corinna Scheurle as pole-dancing Lucienne and Juliette, and Manuel Günther and Dean Power as the men in their act 2 lives.

But the ultimate stars of the evening were the orchestra and Petrenko, creating an Aladdin's cave of detail, with supremely intelligent pacing and control, high-stepping élan and excellent balance (it would be easy for the orchestra to overwhelm the singers; they didn't). It is no easy feat to sustain such intensity with such clarity, and to unfurl the drama of this rich-textured orchestral sound without allowing it to be obscured by its own weight. (Watch The Sea Hawk; listen to Korngold's own conducting of his own music on the soundtrack. It's there to be tapped into, if you want to know how he needs to sound.) This music is a cake that has to be baked at a high temperature - the worst thing to do is let it be soggy, and I've heard more soggy Korngold performances in my time than I'd care to count. It totally kills him. He really needs to be performed almost as if he's Beethoven - taken on his own terms, with that degree of nobility, heroism and sincerity - and these qualities are in short supply in our world. Petrenko found the very soul of Die tote Stadt and I'm deeply grateful to him.

Would I fall in love with this opera now, in my fifties, as much as I did at 20? I wonder. I'll never know. But I do know I'll probably never hear it performed as well as this again. A little bird hints that there might be a DVD (at least I saw tell-tale cameras in action on Sunday), which is seriously good news. Several more performances remain before Christmas and it'll be back on stage in the Munich Opera Festival in July.





Sunday, March 17, 2019

Korngold dream sequence...


Guys, guys...wait...what.....



So, here we go. Jonas Kaufmann is singing the role of Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera, starting on 18 November. And Kirill Petrenko is conducting, and Marlis Petersen is Marietta and if the announcement on Twitter hadn't been accompanied by a slightly worrying cartoon, I'd have fallen off the proverbial chair. One has of course been hoping for years that Kaufmann might do this. (One might even have mentioned such a hope when interviewing him five years ago, just in case - if he was already thinking about it by then, the cards were not revealed.) But gosh, I hope I'm not dreaming.

This video introducing the production suggests that director Simon Stone could well do it proud. (And indeed - update - a Die tote Stadt fan on Twitter tells me he has attended Stone's production in Basel and that it was "the best I've ever seen".) "We must go through the dark times so that we can see the light again," Stone says. "That's what's so great about the piece." Kaufmann meanwhile points out that the work contains just about everything that happened in opera between 1850 and 1950, which makes it "pretty difficult".


This opera, with its extended dream sequence, has in the past been an occasional magnet for 'dirctoritis': I've never quite recovered from witnessing Olaf Bär having to sing the Pierrot Tanzlied dressed in a black basque, angel wings and high heels. It's a work with a lot of heart and a lot of heartbreak; it carries a strong message about love and loss that was all too pertinent in the wake of World War I when the opera was premiered. That was, I'm convinced, one reason for its extreme popularity in the inter-war years - though its generous, atmospheric score and powerhouse roles for the lead singers might just explain something too. 

Speaking of dreams, yesterday I logged on to the Deutsche Oper Berlin site to see if they were doing their hugely successful production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane again, and it suggested to me that they were, in late April and early May, and I even checked T's calendar to see if he'd be free to go and see any of the performances together, and he wasn't. Then I checked back later - only to find it had completely disappeared. Dream sequence again (or just last year's website)? At least that production is due out on DVD in May. Pre-ordering is available, even if tickets are not. 

Meanwhile in the US, the whole of the Bard Festival is built around Korngold this summer. Not least among the treats on offer will be the US staged premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane, conducted by the marvellous Leon Botstein. The festival also contains a concert performance of Die tote Stadt, a rare performance of the Piano Concerto for Left Hand, the Piano Quintet, the Symphony in F sharp, the Passover Psalm and much, much more. Music by Korngold's contemporaries, peers and mentors sets the context, spanning the worlds from Heliane to Hollywood with much in between.

Korngold now has what he has needed the most: top-level international advocacy. With Leon Botstein at Bard, Kaufmann, Petersen and Petrenko in Munich and Christoph Loy in charge of Heliane in Berlin, there's no doubt about the take-up, the appeal and the power. But there's only one thing missing: a real presence in the UK's opera world. One staged production of Die tote Stadt has come to Covent Garden, ever, many years ago. And that was that - which is frankly nuts. Perhaps Korngold is perceived as too European for one lot of Brits and too American for the others. It's time this changed. Thxbi >books plane to Munich<. 



Monday, July 09, 2018

Problems with Pélléas

It's always interesting to read bad reviews, even if one cringes while so doing. But those that have attended the new Pélléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne have come with such a dose of vinegar that it makes one super-curious to see whether they're justified, and it's always hard to believe that they could be.

Oh dear.

Das Wunder der Heliane meets the ghost of Pélléas?
Photo: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, by Richard Hubert Smith

Perhaps Stefan Herheim's concept would play better in central Europe or Scandinavia, where productions are often more heavily dramaturged [yes, I know, no such word] than is usually the case here, and where audiences have arguably grown to expect controversy on stage plus abstruse references laid on with the trowel. And perhaps the setting of Glyndebourne's Organ Room - recreated with useful additions such as concertina-folding organ pipes and sliding walls - would have played better if habitual Glyndebourne patrons had not seen umpteen other productions of other operas also set within Glyndebourne itself, to the point that this jumps aboard the most massive of local clichés.

It is nevertheless a valid starting point: the action takes place in a grand, dark, oppressive old house/castle and, as my companion for the evening remarked, how many of us have not wandered through such a place and wondered what secrets it is hiding in its past? (Or is Herheim trying to tell us something about the age-old secrets of Glyndebourne? I sincerely hope not.) Perhaps part of the idea is about the Christies staging dramatics in their organ room. But what is inexcusable is to have Debussy's final bars obscured by audience laughter as actors clad as present-day Glyndebourne punters wander onto the stage, looking around. No. Just no.

Everyone seems to be blinding each other. Yes, the text makes ample reference to blindness, but nothing in this text is literal: must it be spelled out to that degree? If there is a benefit to the storytelling, it's eluded me thus far. And Golaud, Pélléas and Yniold all frantically mime painting on empty easels. Yes, Debussy was a contemporary of the great Impressionist painters, but that doesn't make this appropriate, insightful or comprehensible, even if perhaps excusable.

What's with the Christ-like figure that appears in the middle of the organ, just as Arkel tells Mélisande she must issue in a new era...with a sheep draped over its shoulders? Sacramental imagery, says a Twitter contact. Yes, we get that (and Herheim changes Yniold's shepherd into a priest), even if we don't necessarily get its point - but the bottom line is that it looks completely ridiculous and everyone laughed, and you don't want that to happen in the middle of Pélléas.

Or maybe you do...and that would be worse, because it means you are not taking the work on its own terms or presenting your audience with something conceived in its true spirit, in which case why should we go? Moreover, having Golaud rape his own son/daughter Yniold is a major misjudgment in a scene that is upsetting enough as Debussy and Maeterlinck created it - and leaves Pélléas novices seriously confused ("But why does he do that?" "Well, actually, he doesn't...").

Nevertheless, there's a sprinkling of wonderful ideas too. Mélisande is portrayed (by the excellent Christina Gansch) as a complete pre-Raphaelite beauty, overwhelming in her seductive presence, and she seems to have healing powers; also, she recoils when Golaud faces her with his sword presented as a cross. There's always a mystery about her; no reason she shouldn't be at least partly supernatural. Golaud (a tour de force from Christopher Purves) is a violent psychopath, as destroyed by his own malady as any Otello. Pelléas is under-characterised, though mostly well sung by John Chest. The division of body and soul for Mélisande at the start of the final scene works nicely, as does having the ghost of Pélléas lurking around, waiting for her to join him – though I'm not sure why he has to run her through with a sword when she's about to snuff it in any case. Some of these images come over more as Das Wunder der Heliane than Pélléas, and I can't really think of two more different operas.

As you'll have gathered, a lot of visual ideas are crammed in here, layer upon layer upon layer. Yet Debussy's music is so subtle, so delicate, so hinted-at, that it's completely overpowered by the on-stage shenanigans. By the end one feels exhausted by all the "WTF now?" moments, and might be longing for the privilege of hearing a concert performance instead – preferably with Robin Ticciati conducting it every bit as beautifully, intelligently and ineffably as he does here.

In the past few years Ticciati has had to take some time off for a back operation, which has somewhat disrupted his tenure as Glyndebourne's music director. But in that time, he has been reinventing his whole approach to conducting (as he told me in an interview last year) - and now the results are becoming more and more interesting. Something in him has deepened and darkened and opened out. I'm getting the impression that we may have here a very significant musician indeed, someone who has further to go interpretatively than some of the supposedly glitzier, more superficially exciting podium presences. I hope I'm still around to see where he is in 25 years' time.

Nina Stemme as Kundry, with ex-equine friend
Photo: Ruth Walz

Concert performances, meanwhile, have a lot going for them. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening holed up with the webcast of Parsifal from the Bavarian State Opera, this being the first summer in a number of years that I'm not going physically to Munich. (Hallelujah, medals and science prizes galore, please, to whoever created the technology that makes webcasts possible and quality sound available on the computer.) What a musical treat: Kirill Petrenko on fire with spiritual joy in the pit, the orchestra playing the living daylights out of the piece, Nina Stemme the most astounding Kundry - and Kundry the most astounding Nina Stemme - that I've yet had the joy of hearing, Christian Gerhaher a dream of an Amfortas, Rene Pape channelling Gurnemanz in person, and Jonas Kaufmann tracing Parsifal's growth and strength incrementally, with That Voice. The production, by Pierre Audi, is strong, straightforward and clear, never confused or confusing. The Grail is meat in act I and music itself at the end of act 3: we are saved by art alone. Bravi. But the visual art is by the great Georg Baselitz and though many images are effective, at other times one just has to look the other way. A concert performance would solve that in one fell swoop. This probably sounds uncharacteristically philistine, so blame the heat if you like.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The day after the day before

Jonas Kaufmann, Jochen Rieder, BBCSO.
Photo: Mark Allen/Barbican
It's possibly some measure of my current distraction - with libretto, deadlines, nephew's wedding the other day and an ongoing situation with a very sick cat - that I completely forgot Jonas Kaufmann was coming to London to do the Strauss Four Last Songs, until the Barbican press office sent me an email saying, in effect, '...but don't you want tickets?'. So after Meghan and Harry had walked up the aisle - and so, in Harrogate, had our nephew and his own American bride, and so, in Cambridge, had Guy Johnston and Ali Digby (huge congratulations to music's loveliest new couple!) - and the sun shone and the Rev Michael Curry had wowed a rather startled congregation with his reminder of the powers of love and fire, off we headed for the City to see what the tenor of this event would be like.

One question that always applies at such concerts is: what else goes into the programme? Kaufmann's friendly conductor, Jochen Rieder, wielded the BBC Symphony Orchestra baton over a selection including Elgar's In the South, the second symphonic interlude from Strauss's Intermezzo and, to open, a work that I frankly thought I would never hear played live: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Schauspiel Overture, written when he was 14. [Update: I am reminded that the CBSO did it a few years back and I missed it...] The drama in question has never been definitively identified: his adored Shakespeare is likely, and while The Tempest and The Winter's Tale have been suggested, Twelfth Night - as stated by his notorious critic father, Julius - is possibly the most convincing idea, given the bittersweet tone of the music, plus the mix of high spirits and big, generous tunes. But it's possible, too, that it's a non-specific concert overture and as such, it functions jolly nicely.

This Viennese gemütlichkeit, the expansive expression, the Klimt-like glistening of the orchestration, seemed to puzzle the Barbican every bit as much as the gospel choir inside St George's Chapel, Windsor, had earlier struck some churlish online wedding observers as "inappropriate". Of course, it wasn't - the bride is American and it represented her background. In the Barbican, Korngold was a Strauss disciple, so it was perfectly appropriate too. My dream is that one day the English will "get" Korngold. They still don't. It may be a long wait.

Kaufmann presented four Strauss songs in the first half - 'Ruhe, meine Seele', 'Freundliche Vision', 'Befreit' and 'Heimliche Aufforderung' - and the Four Last Songs in the second. I'm preoccupied with Lieder right now because I'm doing a comparative review of a certain song-cycle by Schumann and have been listening to dozens of recordings, day in and day out (Kaufmann has not recorded this cycle, so isn't in the survey). The ideal singer, in my personal view, blends tone, nuances of meaning and diction into one - it's amazing how often the balance between these elements is skewed. In this respect Kaufmann is an absolute master. What we heard last night, essentially, was a supremely intelligent, beautiful and detailed Lieder recital. But whether the orchestra bore responsibility (enough rehearsal? One wonders...), or the loud and muddy acoustic of the hall, or whatever, Kaufmann's tone - never huge in any case - blended into the textures rather than soaring above it.

You shouldn't go to a Kaufmann concert expecting ear-splitting volume, any more than you should go to his Otello expecting him suddenly to morph into Jon Vickers. He likes to sing softly. He goes for colour, nuance, text, intimacy - and these Strauss numbers are mostly not molto con belto-appropriate. Could any listener witness a fine performance of 'Befreit' and emerge unshredded? In this poem by Richard Dehmel, a man speaks to his dying wife of the joys they have experienced together and recognises the time ahead when she will be 'released' and he will see her only in his dreams. So, no, you cannot expect a singer to whack this out at high volume. You need some sensitivity from the orchestra. Or you need Helmut Deutsch at the piano instead.

Here's what Kaufmann said to me about the question of volume when I interviewed him a few years ago for BBC Music Magazine:

"I think you can touch the audience more with a soft sound than you can with any big note. I think you can impress people with big notes, but you can really move them and touch them with the soft ones. You need to have both. Even in the heavy Wagnerian repertory, no big note seems to be big if there isn’t a soft note as well. If everything is just shouted it’s not impressive – after five minutes you’re thinking 'we’ve heard that already'. When people are in misery, when people are suffering, you tell it with a soft voice – there are self-confessions and all these things, it doesn’t get shouted, it comes out naturally."


So, did the Four Last Songs work? In terms of pure artistry, of the mix of line and text and meaning, then yes, absolutely, with 'Im Abendrot' the finest of all: subtle, mystical, transformative. But can you get used to the sound of a baritonal tenor in these songs, instead of a soprano whose tone soars and slices through the textures? Kaufmann's didn't. He blended with the orchestra as if he were another instrument among them. In short, it was beautiful, it was a worthwhile experiment, but sopranos can probably rest assured they won't be losing these songs too often to their male rivals.

And one encore: 'Morgen', in which the orchestra was quiet enough and that soft, shining, intense Straussian beauty could reach everybody. Heaven at last.

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Friday, April 06, 2018

Psst, Kaufmaniacs: Tristan alert

Jonas Kaufmann is singing Tristan und Isolde, Act 2, in concert this week with Camilla Nylund (soprano), the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons. The New York Times has a sneak preview video, plus an interview by Joshua Barone. The singing sounds quite good.

Kaufmann.
Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical
NYLUND It’s actually very dangerous to drive a car and listen. You always drive much too fast. [She's not wrong - JD]
NELSONS A few conductors have died during “Tristan.” The reason is Act II. It might seem relaxing, but actually the heartbeat and the intensity and level of excitement — it’s so high that you can’t stand it for a long time. So I don’t want yet to die, but I might.
KAUFMANN Do it on Saturday, so at least we’ve done one concert.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

One for the Kaufmaniacs



I've just been watching the Andrew Marr Show, in which some government twonk has been banging on about how his colleagues in power ought to sound more optimistic about Brexit.

It's one of those New Age lispings from the '90s that if you believe in something hard enough, you make it magically come true. You turn it into a little rhyme known as an 'affirmation' and you sit in your room every morning and every evening repeating it and repeating it and eventually bingo, there it is on your pretty-patterned life plate. Only problem is that beyond your room you might find yourself up against other people believing in other things, or even those peculiar phenomena known as realities.

So I've fled in disgust and found you a trailer for the Jonas Kaufmann documentary to help cheer up anyone who needs a smile right now. See above.

John Bridcut's film, Jonas Kaufmann: Tenor for the Ages is on BBC4 at 9pm tonight. Don't miss it. You might learn a little more about what was going on through those two tempestuous years from Last Night of the Proms to Otello. The latter involved a last-minute sprint back to the dressing-room to fetch a forgotten sword - just after the opera had begun. The former involved Union Jack boxer shorts and we might just hear how he got them. (Well, we do hear. I'm not telling.) The good news is that the film will be on iPlayer for a month, so you can watch it online as many times as you like.

The broadcast is followed at 10.30pm by the showing of Otello itself, filmed at the Royal Opera House in June. Why such an event gets confined to BBC4 at dead of a Sunday night is actually beyond me. Perhaps the action is somehow, somewhere, considered too nasty, too tragic and too Italian [despite being by Shakespeare] to foist upon that relentlessly optimistic Brexiteering UK public? After all, optimism fixes everything, dunnit? [irony font applies]. Otello just wasn't optimistic enough when Iago began to pour the poison of doubt and jealousy into his ear. He could have won if he'd been optimistic, no?

Or is it more that he swallowed a heap of lies fed systematically to him by someone he trusted but shouldn't have? Lies that induced him to murder and suicide? Is that just too close to the bone?

Time was when Jonas Kaufmann singing one of Verdi's greatest roles would be primetime fare for mainstream channels, probably on a holiday or special occasion moment. If you're going to have an opera season, as the BBC is, why not really have an opera season? Why squirrel it away? What a missed opportunity. How very unoptimistic.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Something for the weekend: Paris with Jonas



Jonas Kaufmann's new album of French arias, entitled simply L'Opéra, is out next week. Being JDCMB readers, dear friends, you are probably going to like it, so here is Sony's beautifully made trailer, narrated by the man himself.

He strikes a fine balance between known and unfamiliar repertoire, with the presentation on the video informal but informative, classy but unpretentious. He's accompanied by the magnificent Orchestra of the Bavarian State Opera from his home town of Munich, conducted by Bertrand de Billy. Ludovic Tézier joins him for the Pearl Fishers duet and Sonya Yoncheva for scenes from Massenet's Manon that even blissed out my cat, Ricki, not thus far noted for his appreciation of anything other than supremely refined playing of Mozart piano sonatas.

The album also includes dark-hued accounts of Massenet's 'Pourquoi me réveiller' from Werther and the Flower Song from Bizet's Carmen, but culminates in the glory of Berlioz's Les Troyens, performed with multifarious colour and vast, mature, refined authority. We hope you love it as much as we did.

Release date is 15 September and there's more info here.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Hotello

Kaufmann as Otello, Vratogna as Iago.
All photos by Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House

One of the first rules of reviewing is: do not start by talking about the weather. So to start on the Royal Opera's new Otello by pointing out that it was the hottest first night of the year - Jonas Kaufmann's role debut - as well as the hottest June day since 1976 just isn't on. Nevertheless, it was both. In the auditorium one experienced Keith Warner's postmodern new production and Verdi's sizzling score through the gentle rattling of ladies' fans, the flapping of tickets and programmes mimicking their effect, and the upping and downing of light on rogue mobiles as certain people in my row checked Facebook every ten minutes. (Why couldn't they just have donated their ticket to a fan who would have fully appreciated the performance?)

If the audience was finding it difficult to settle, the same couldn't be said of the music. Tony Pappano, first of all, is in his element in this opera. His shaping and pacing of the drama is breathtaking: mercurial, clear, enormously energetic and deeply intelligent. The building up of the scene where Iago gets Cassio increasingly drunk is just one example, beginning almost as a pub song, joshing about, before spiralling through a queasy mephistophelian intensification into violence. The chorus's staging is often static and stylised, very far from naturalistic, but they sound simply glorious.




Again, canny pacing is everything in Kaufmann's characterisation of Otello: confident and tender until Iago plants the seed of doubt, but thereafter tumbling in stages from loss of faith through cool, calculating and controlled resolve, into increasing torment and ultimate dissolution. At ease taking command, but tentative with his new wife as she leads him to the bedroom, this Otello is a man of war first and foremost, perhaps unable to cope with the shock of his own emotions. His progress towards murder for once makes considerable sense.

Deeply convincing and vocally gorgeous, full of careful shading with brilliance reserved for the moments it most counted, this was singing in 3D. If some people expected more volume, one can only reiterate that Kaufmann doesn't do volume for the sake of it and has never been the biggest voice on the stage, just the most beautiful and intelligent one (hmm, this is my second time this year writing that). It is no reason to reject the most complex and satisfying interpretation of this role that I've yet experienced.

Marco Vratogna, replacing the originally announced Ludovic Tézier as Iago, was the wild card of the evening, bursting into our consciousnesses in impressive style. Warner's production makes him explicitly the puppet master, controlling not only those around him but the symbols of Venice, the carnival mask, the winged lion, setting the hideous process in motion with ice-cold, psychopathic glee and resembling nothing so much as a Shakespearean version of Dracula with shaven head and bat-like cloak. He could scarcely lean on a wall without making it move. Yet his raven-dark, demonically powerful voice made Iago more than merely a copybook villain. Meanwhile, as Desdemona Maria Agresta sounded vocally effortless and presented the hapless heroine as a straightforward, uncomplicated, loving young woman, trapped in a tragic situation beyond control.

Agresta as Desdemona, Kaufmann as Otello in the final scene

Visually the production has some seriously striking moments. The set design, by Boris Kudlička, involves sliding panels that shift to show us blazes of light through glass, the bedroom through latticework, Otello's face highlighted in a window frame before the final scene, and Cassio's vertiginous descent into drunkenness, amid much else. The contrast between the public and the private moments is convincingly achieved, with Iago and Otello experiencing their oppressive solitary reflections in the darkest isolation. The aptly named Bruno Poet's lighting is, throughout, not only masterful, but often magical.

However, reflecting Otello as a tragic-faced lion-caricature in a mirror, smothering him with a carnival mask and bringing on a giant dismembered lion statue are gestures that seem to over-egg the Venetian pudding in a production that otherwise mixes and mismatches its eras to occasional ill effect. The tall ship rigged with beautiful sails arriving at the back in scene 1 is far indeed from the apparently contemporary hotel-style bedroom in which the murder takes place. And the costume designs by Kaspar Glarner, while offering flowing robes for Desdemona and that splendid cloak for Iago, experience occasional misjudgments. Emilia - the excellent Kai Rüütel - is encumbered by an impossibly stiff and outsize fake-Renaissance wig, and as for Otello's gigantic harem-style leather trousers (eh?) and the blue sparkly robe - think variety-act pseudo-magician - in which he arrives to kill his wife, these did few favours to either singer or character. If the point is that the story is timeless, we know that already and this doesn't help.

There's always some plonker who has to boo the production team, of course, and despite those few weaknesses they really didn't deserve it. It's a powerful, moving account of a towering masterpiece, with musical performances of a calibre that you won't find improved upon anywhere.

Otello is in cinemas next Wednesday, 28 June, so if you can't get to the ROH, do try and catch it on screen.

Details and booking here.


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Monday, February 13, 2017

Less cheering...


Eric Halfvarson, Karita Mattila, Jonas Kaufmann, Tony Pappano & the LSO
take a bow the other night. Now it's curtains...

Oh dear. The Kaufmann Residency has come to an untimely end. Jonas has bronchitis and the concert including the 'Four Last Songs' tonight has been cancelled. Or at least postponed - the Barbican says it will be rescheduled in due course.

So there we are. That's it from London's Kaufmann Central. The discount tent has been packed away, the thermos of tea drained and the last sarnies will presumably keep a day or two in the fridge. We were very lucky to hear that glorious recital last week and the delirious thrill of Die Walküre Act I, so probably we shouldn't be greedy.

We wish Jonas the speediest of recoveries. The offer of chicken soup still stands.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A post to cheer up the Kaufmaniacs... #kaufmannresidency

Oh dear. Jonas Kaufmann cancelled his conversation session at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama today, citing a cold and apologising for disappointing the public. We wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see him for some Strauss specials on Monday. Meanwhile, for the Kaufmaniacs who'd taken the day off specially to go along this afternoon, here are some cheering bits and pieces. Grab a glass of something nice and sit back...

HOW I DISCOVERED JONAS
This recording was the first time I ever heard Jonas's voice and I have never forgotten it. I knew nothing about him, had never even heard his name, and was sent his Strauss album to review, and out came this...voice. Blimey, guv....



WORDS OF WISDOM
Here are some choice quotes from my interview with him exactly three years ago, for BBC Music Magazine. It was February 2014 in New York, it was sodding freeeezing, the snow was piled six and a half feet high around the sidewalks and I turned up in a thick jumper, a hat that wrecks my hair and snow boots. He was rehearsing Werther intensively, but looked fresh as the proverbial daisy. We talked mainly about Winterreise. Also...

JK: “One of the key ingredients to make an audience suffer with you, feel with you, to make things credible and look and sound natural is that you must really believe in it. You need to fill up these wonderful compositions with sense, meaning and genuine emotion.

“I always refer to Herbert von Karajan’s words when he said that what we’re seeking as musicians is ‘controlled ecstasy’. The world around you – including yourself – has to believe that you are a hundred per cent this other person and only when this happens is it something real. But it’s a game, and at the beginning you don’t know how far you can go before you lose control.


“This feeling of almost flying, of almost convincing yourself you’re this other person, that’s what makes this job so exciting – and also in the end so easy, because since you ‘are’ that person, all the words you are singing or saying make total sense.”


WAAAGNER
Better? Let's have some appropriately Wintersturmerish Wagner, with thanks to the excellent quality of Medici.tv...


AND A SPOT OF LEHÁR WITH PLÁCIDO
If this next one doesn't work, nothing will! Come on, SMILE....


HOT TODDY
Last but not least, here is my dad's hot toddy recipe. Should dispel a cold in moments.

1 measure brandy (more if necessary)
A spoon of apricot jam, to taste (or alternative flavour, or honey)
A slice of lemon

Put ingredients into a mug. Fill with hot water. Stir well. Enjoy while listening to Meistersinger.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Wagner Evening #kaufmannresidency

Jonas Kaufmann in recital the other night. Photo: Alastair Muir/Barbican

State of being in the Discount Tent EC1 last night post-Walküre Act I: shaking a bit, hyperventilating slightly and maybe in need of a little lie-down, toast and a nice cup of camomile tea. But even the most soothing of brews doesn't cleanse that music from your system. Nothing new about saying Wagner is like a drug, but you can feel it physically in your bloodstream. It's a substance that burns you up from within via myriad points of white heat and you sense it endowing you with superhuman powers such as flight, or at least the ability to walk upside down on the ceiling. Coming down again is the difficult part.

We'll go back to that later, but first you probably want to know what the performance was like.

After opening with the Tristan und Isolde prelude, with Wagner's own concert ending (he tacks on the end of the Liebestod), Tony Pappano kept a tight rein and concentrated atmospheres in the orchestra for the Wesendonck Lieder, which Jonas Kaufmann - as far as we know, the only tenor singing them in this day and age - approached with every iota of the expertise he brought to his recital the other night. Colour, character, control, sophisticated phrasing, poised emotional content: this was a mesmerisingly beautiful interpretation, and one in which he somehow created the illusion, especially in the closing 'Träume', that he became the poetry - as if he had turned into Mathilde Wesendonck. Watching him return to his own self as the applause began was like witnessing some strange metamorphosis controlled by an invisible, internal Tarnhelm.

You'd think this demanding song cycle was enough for a singer who's recently returned after months off sick, but the second half was of course devoted to the whole of Act I of Die Walküre. A few things to consider at this point. First, Kaufmann's voice has always been about quality, not volume: never the biggest voice in the world, but simply the most beautiful and intelligent one. Also, when Bayreuth was designed for the Ring cycle, Wagner's idea was to keep the orchestra level down, with a sunken pit, so that the singers wouldn't have to yell to be heard. Last night, our Siegmund was flanked by two giant voices: as Sieglinde, Karita Mattila and as Hunding Erik Halfvarson. They stood where singers stand in concert performances: beside the conductor, at one with the orchestra. In that context Kaufmann's voice sounded like a gleaming gemstone within the entire diadem of sound-colours. But Mattila and Halfvarson (who of course hadn't sung the whole of the Wesendonck Lieder beforehand) put on the tiara and went surfing over the soundwaves.

Mattila, her tone full of complex, honeyed herbiness in the lower registers and rays of blinding sunlight at the top, seemed ecstatic, losing herself in the music and the role. Kaufmann's Siegmund was a bitter fighter on the run, filled with character and contained power, gradually regaining his passion for life and love and unleashing the full glory at full tilt when it was needed. Halfvarson proved a Hunding in whose house you'd be very afraid to stay, his towering stage presence and magnificent bass galvanising more acting contact than there had been hitherto. Pappano conducted like a man possessed, pacing the energy up to and beyond fever pitch; and one special hero is the LSO itself, but perhaps especially the cello section and its principal, Tim Hugh, who made incandescent gorgeousness out of his solos. The whole thing left even slightly-anxious-about-it people like me longing desperately for Rattle Hall to be built and give them a world-class acoustic with real shine and bloom... And yet the total effect, give or take these quibbles, was mind-blowing.

Heading back to the Tent I bumped into a friend and we said: "Great, so what time does Act II start?"

I'll never forget the first time I heard Die Walküre. I was 25 and working as assistant editor at Classical Music Magazine. Covent Garden was staging the Ring cycle and when my boss discovered I'd never seen it he said I must join him on his press tickets. I went with some trepidation; I had never even heard Act I of Die Walküre before, because I wasn't allowed Wagner, because HITLER. I remember coming out of the opera house in exactly the state above. Twenty-five years later and I know the piece really well, yet it still does that to me. Just imagine the first-timer impact.

So look. I have faced the Wagner-and-Hitler question again and again, and thought it through ad infinitum. The issue is difficult, it's painful, it's complex and for years I felt that avoiding this music was totally justified on historical grounds. Yet it has got to the point now where I could almost feel I was swindled. I was denied, then denied myself, this consciousness-altering musical marvel, this view from the summit of summits, because of Hitler. But that lets Hitler win. Now we must reclaim the music. The greatest music in the world - and this is some of it - should belong to us all. Nobody should be denied the experience of any form of great art because someone, somewhere, is telling them "this isn't for you".


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Black magic #kaufmannresidency

Back on stage! 

The one problem with recitals by Jonas Kaufmann is the absolute scrum at the ladies' loos. The Barbican's facilities are confusing because there are two entrances, one at either end, and sometimes there is one queue, usually two and occasionally three. During last night's interval they brought in ushers to do a spot of crowd-control.

The fans were out in force and for good reason. This concert by Kaufmann and "his" glorious pianist Helmut Deutsch kicked off the Barbican's Kaufmann Residency, four events between last night and 13 February. It was also the charismatic German tenor's first recital in many months, marking his return to performance with Deutsch after his lengthy period of recovery from a haematoma on a vocal cord (his first return to the stage was as Lohengrin in Paris, just two weeks ago). It must have been a relief to many that he was there at all. A slight air of tension hung over the auditorium as the beginning was slightly delayed and an unspoken anxiety of the "er, is he OK?" variety seemed to shiver through the waiting rows.

He was. And he started by thanking everyone for coming along, which got a laugh - many people booked their tickets a year ago and Kaufmaniacs have flown in from all over the world. He then explained that the iPad on its stand was there because this was his first recital in a while and it was simply to make sure he didn't make any any any mistakes. This introduction was to be one of the few light moments of the evening: the artists had selected a programme of dark, disturbing repertoire, the type that excavates the soul and holds it up for forensic examination. Kaufmann's depth of tone and actorly intelligence suits this repertoire exceptionally well. He is, as ever, the ideal tenor for those who really prefer baritones.

Deutsch and Kaufmann: a peerless partnership
Let's hear it for Helmut Deutsch, whose long and distinguished career as pianist, Lieder specialist and teacher seems to have reached its apogee in his work with Kaufmann. This musical magic is utterly a joint effort - and what singer could be so lucky as to have a pianist partner (don't even think about calling him an "accompanist") whose tone is so radiant, whose dynamics are so ideally judged, whose creation of atmosphere is simply peerless and whose support is ideal at every turn. If Kaufmann is Margot Fonteyn, then Deutsch is Rudolf Nureyev, lifting him effortlessly, letting him shine, while remaining a dazzling artist in his own right - though Deutsch is probably a bit more self-effacing about it than Nureyev might have been. The two together become more than the sum of their parts, the partnership a living entity in its own right.

Schumann's Kerner Lieder Op.35 was perhaps the closest set he ever composed to Schubert's Schwanengesang. A sequence of songs rather than a cycle, they are united by the poet Justinus Kerner's undertow of threat and despair: often composer and poet fuse to a degree that it is impossible to be certain whether Schumann is delving into Kerner to craft the poet's essence in music, or whether he has perhaps found in Kerner the perfect means to capture his own. He was much under the influence of Schubert at the time and Schubertian hints surface occasionally in the music: a Rosamunde rhythm in 'Wanderlied', subtle switches between major and minor in 'Erstes Grün' - and not so subtle ones in the set's showstopper 'Stille Tränen'. The final three songs, beginning with that, are united, too, by the rhythm of the text; Schumann makes the last two essentially into one, reiterating a questioning, lost-sounding figure with a cumulative effect that can be deeply unsettling. "Why are you so ill?...Nature heals me, but man will not let me rest," says Kerner. Schumann's likely syphilis? Schubert's? (And can one help but reflect that the music business may have put rather a lot of pressure on our performer of late?) In the final song, 'Alte Laute', the poet says he is trapped in a bad dream from which only an angel can wake him; and right now so is the world, and for a few moments the musicians on stage and their audience were entirely as one.

Kaufmann's core strengths are many, but two were of special value here. One is his quietness: reserving the big, open notes for special moments alone, his eloquence is as soft and dark as mink. It combines with that other magic ingredient, expert storytelling, to the effect that instead of going out to the audience by projecting at full tilt, he makes us go to him, creating an atmosphere of mesmerising intimacy that seems to shrink the hall. Every word and phrase has character and meaning, each song a base shade of voice colour specific to its needs; such is Kaufmann's ability to inhabit the music's secret spaces that you would understand the poet and composer's message even if you couldn't hear the words, though you always can. Control is vital, and the pacing that goes with it: the long build-up from near-whisper to full-on belt-out beauty in 'Stille Tränen' hit home. Kaufmann is a supremely controlled singer; in the partnership of head and heart, it's the head in the driving seat all the way, with the perfect understanding of how to prompt our hearts.

It's difficult to understand why Henri Duparc's mélodies are not performed in every song recital everywhere in the world, or why he might ever be considered obscure or somehow difficult. The French composer, a friend and contemporary of Fauré's, offers a heady synthesis of sensuality and seamless poise, the music bathed in luminous colour. Deutsch found the light within the richly written textures and Kaufmann the subtle lines and shaping: 'Phidylé' is allowed to sleep undisturbed in a radiant dream until the poet anticipates her kiss with a renewed power, 'Le manoir de Rosamonde' is terse, frightening and verging on the tragic as the poet flees the dog-bite of love and leaves its land undiscovered, and the set is framed with two Baudelaire poems about distant dwellings - 'L'invitation au voyage' and 'La vie antérieure', each evoking an idyllic landscape that is simultaneously within the soul.

A fan presents Kaufmann with a bouquet at the end
Finally to Britten, and if you don't know the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, it's time you did. Britten's settings in Italian, written in America during WW2, prove as expert as his English operas, and while this was a chance for Kaufmann to show his stylish Italian alter-ego, he also showed us how Britten's sensitivity was in its element in those moments of self-discovery, rising from the subconscious to catch the artist off guard, faced with the pain of his own passions. Britten's style occasionally can almost resemble Prokofiev here, especially in the third song, 'Veggio co'bei vostri occhi un dolce lume', which could have stepped out of a slow-motion dream-vision ballet; and Kaufmann again excelled in mezzo voce reflection, narrative and revelation, with heroics saved for when they were most needed, such as the final song, 'Spirto ben nato' - noble soul. Yes, exactly: this singing, this partnership, is noble soul incarnate, in its finest sense - happily, undimmed despite all.

One encore - Strauss's 'Nichts' - but there's plenty more to look forward to in the week ahead, which culminates in that composer's Four Last Songs.

And a good interview with Kaufmann in the Sunday Times, by Lynn Barber, here.