Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; JochenRieder conducting the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin; Julia Kleiter, soprano, in the Abraham and Korngold selections
In his new CD
Jonas Kaufmann goes off in a musical direction that may seem surprising for a
singer with Heldentenor leanings: the world of "Silver Age" operetta and "talkie" film musicals. Sony has released two versions of this disc: one
all-German and the other with six of the numbers sung in English, plus a bonus
track in French. The latter version, titled You
Mean the World to Me, is sold in the U.S.; one will have to go
somewhere like Amazon.de to purchase Du
bist der Welt fürmich or else pick up an expensive import that
contains both versions and a DVD of the recording sessions. (There is also a
separate DVD release of a concert performance plus a documentary on Musical
Berlin in 1930.) I haven't heard the all-German version, but Kaufmann's
English is respectable, and the booklet for the American edition has room for a
lengthy, informative essay by Thomas Voigt and all the lyrics in side-by-side
German and English (plus the French words for "Dein
is meinganzes Herz").
Most of the composers on this disc, as well as
the tenors who made their arias (perhaps "songs" is a better word) famous,
were Austrian—and, not incidentally, Jewish. But both composers and singers
had important successes in Berlin, and the more cabaret-inflected Berlin
operettas merged seamlessly with the German film musicals of the early 1930s.
Voigt's booklet essay, "Dream Factory Berlin," puts strong emphasis on the
German capital's contribution to this musical culture and also gives attention
to Kaufmann's recording sessions at an acoustically celebrated broadcasting
studio in East Berlin.
Kaufmann has always been known for his ability to color his voice to fit the dramatic moment, both within his Wagnerian repertoire and in French roles from Don José to Werther. So perhaps it is not so surprising that he is able to lighten his voice for the style some of these songs call for, and even to croon, i.e., use a lilting head voice, on the high notes. Those who want more full-throated or clarion tenor thrills can get them in two of the numbers, arias from Lehar's Giuditta("Freunde, das Lebenistlebenswert!" premiered by Richard Tauber at the Vienna State Opera) and Künneke's The Great Sinner ("Schrenk's Song of Life," written for Helge Rosvaenge). The CD also includes a selection from a "proper" opera, Korngold's Die töteStadt: the familiar soprano aria known as "Marietta's Lied," which leads to a duet with the tenor (a role for which Tauber was renowned).
A few of these songs, especially the ones written
for films, are pretty close to the sort of thing Dick Powell sang in his Warner
Brothers musicals: imagine a German equivalent of "By a Waterfall." The
standout of this type of song is Paul Abraham's "Diwanpüppchen,"
literally "Divan Dolly" (though "Couch Cutie" would have worked too),
with lyrics somewhere between silly and provocative: the doll has beautiful
white teeth, false tears in its eyes, and sawdust in its heart, and "when you
lay it down, it closes its eyes, just like you!" It's a bouncy foxtrot duet,
with Kaufmann joined by soprano Julia Kleiter: both play its goofy naughtiness
straight, but the real star of this particular cut is the Berlin Radio Orchestra
under JochenRieder, who make the most of the brilliant orchestration, on display
in an instrumental section. The instrumentations throughout the disc,
incidentally, are the originals or carefully reconstructed.
But the majority of the numbers are typical operetta love songs, including the most famous, Lehar's "Dein is meinganzes Herz," sung as "You Are My Heart's Delight," and as "Je t'aidonné mon Coeur" on the bonus cut. I couldn't resist going back to Richard Tauber's classic rendition of this song, and indeed it's unmatchable: partly because of the beauty and control of Tauber's voice, but also because he sings with utter forthright sincerity--and in repeating the opening section he adds mordents (compare Bing Crosby) that give a period flavor that Kaufmann doesn't attempt. Kaufmann's voice of course has its own great beauty (with that baritonal coloring) and remarkable control, but one feels that he is acting out the song, impersonating the lover, rather than just pouring out his feelings as Tauber seems to do. (It's not a matter of the language: YouTube provides Kaufmann singing the aria in German at a 2011 Dresden Opera Gala, and it's even more "acted out" than the English recording.) As for the missing mordents, perhaps there was a fear of seeming to mimic: does anyone today dare to cover a Bing Crosby classic by following every vocal inflection of the original?
There is much pleasure to be found in Kaufmann's renditions of other love songs, including one by Tauber himself, from his own operetta The Singing Dream: "Du bist der Welt fürmich" (sung in German, though it also serves as the CD's English title, You Mean the World to Me). Other standouts on the disc include two English-language renditions: the charming (detractors will say cutesy) "My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue" from Lehar's Frasquita and "My Song Goes Round the World," the title song of a film made in both German and English versions starring tenor Joseph Schmidt, music by Hans May. I should also mention the gorgeously sung "Grüssmirmein Wien," from Kalman's Countess Maritza (a very echt-Viennese selection on this Berlin-oriented program).
Incidentally, the period English lyrics are often
graceful and clever, if not very literal translations: e.g., "Girls Were Made
to Love and Kiss" (from Lehar's Paganini)
includes "I know the longing, the wronging of hearts/the hope that flatters
and shatters and smarts" and "flirting is jolly, it's folly, but fun!"
(The latter means and sounds nothing like "und
such' im Rausche, im Tauschemein Glück!" but has equally playful
rhyming.) Since the theme of this song is "Love ‘em and leave ‘em!" it
doesn't hurt that the high notes come on the vain-sounding "I'm a man"
rather than "Liebchenfein" and "küsssienur." Sony provides
literal translations for the songs sung in German.
As I've indicated, Rieder and the Berlin Radio Symphony are superb in this repertoire, seeming to relish every note of accompaniment and on occasion letting loose in an instrumental bridge. Julia Kleiter is a fine partner in the two Abraham duets, but her voice in "Marietta's Lied," where the soprano takes the lead, is rather steely for a listener preferring a more meltingly warm voice in this music, such as Renee Fleming's. I must add that after playing the 1934 recording with Lotte Lehmann and Tauber, with no less than George Szell accompanying, I was so moved that I didn't want to listen to anything else for a while.
Balance of voice and orchestra is excellent
throughout, with Kaufmann's distinctive timbre vividly rendered. (Well, the
moments of crooning are not what one expects of a Siegmund, but it's
appropriate to some of the material, and equally well captured.) Though playing
all 17 selections in a row might be considered bingng, fans of Kaufmann and/or
Austrian/German stage and screen musicals of roughly 1925-35 will find much to