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Die Walküre: Sword Monologue
Siegfried Rienzi: Rienzi's Prayer
Tannhäuser: Rome Narration
Die Meistersinger: "Am stillen Herd”
Lohengrin: Grail Narration
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Donald Runnicles, conducting the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra
Review By Joe Milicia


Best Audiohpile Music Of 2014 Blue Note Award  Jonas Kaufmann's recent Wagner CD has received plenty of praise for the beauty, power and sensitivity of the tenor's renditions of various scenes and songs: qualities thrillingly in evidence to anyone who seen his Siegmund or Parsifal at the Met, either in person or through HD transmission. I can only add to the praise here, while calling attention as well to the superb accompaniments by Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra of the Berlin Deutsche Oper (of which he is Music Director), and also to the thoughtful choice and order of the program, with strongly contrasting excerpts from six operas followed by a rarely heard tenor performance of the Wesendonck-Lieder. Also worth emphasizing are the excellent sound engineering and (less vital but still welcome) the booklet with an enlightening interview with Kaufmann plus full texts and translations.

The tonal beauty of Kaufmann's voice, with its baritonal shadings, has been justly celebrated, along with his ability to "color” his voice to fit the dramatic moment. At times one is reminded of the clarion quality of Lauritz Melchior; at other times, the gruffer, sterner yet still meltingly beautiful sound of Jon Vickers. Kaufmann's sensitivity to musical phrasing and the meaning of the words reminds me also of the more lyric style of the non-Wagnerian Nicolai Gedda. The CD's opening selection from Die Walküre displays all these qualities: as Siegmund, Kaufmann first sings grimly of being "Weaponless in a foe's house,” then becomes more gentle as he remembers his foe's kindly wife, before bursting into his despairing cry for his lost father: "Wälse! Wälse!” (In the booklet interview Kaufmann mentions the "challenge” posed by Melchior's recorded renditions of this moment, and certainly rises to the challenge with full-throated cries, the second "Wäl-" lasting over 10 seconds.) Next we hear a much "lighter” quality (not just a matter of the pitch) as he sings of the glimmering light shining from the handle of the magic sword. Decca's engineers capture both the gloom and the radiance in the orchestral contribution as well.

A nice contrast is provided as we move from the tragic, exhausted reluctant-warrior Siegmund to his son-to-be, the callow lad Siegfried in the ”Forest Murmurs” section of the third Ring opera. Runnicles (an experienced Wagnerian) and and the Deutsche Oper Orchestra attend to every shifting moment of Kaufmann's portrayal of Siegfried, with especially characterful woodwinds suggesting the woodland birds. Among Kaufmann's memorable moments, note the astounding crescendo on the word "Mütter” as Siefgfried thinks longingly of the mother he never knew. The excerpt extends from the first "Forest Murmurs” music through the hero's comic efforts to make a reed to sing to the birds, up to the first two strains of his hunting-horn call. (No dragon.)

"Rienzi's Prayer” takes us from music-drama monologue back to a more traditional opera aria, its melodic phrases beautifully sculpted by both Kaufmann and Runnicles. The impassioned piety of this scene is followed by the grief and rage over a prayer denied in Tannhäuser's "Rome Narrative,” as the hero tells his friend Wolfram how the pope denied his request for forgiveness of his Venusberg sins. Particularly worth noting are the gleam of Kaufmann's voice as Tannhäuser expresses wonder at the spectacle of the penitents gathered in Rome; the anguish of his plea to the pope; and the tight edgy voice he uses mockingly in quoting the pope's words of rejection. Notable as well are the Deutsche Oper's brass, resplendent earlier in the scene and devastating when underlining the pope's terrible pronouncement. Decca provides us with a voice for Wolfram (Markus Brűck) for the few lines that lead us to Tannhauser's resolve to return to Venus.

Another extreme contrast takes us to our shortest excerpt, the ardent young Walther's story of how he resolved to become a Master-Singer, beginning with his days "at the quiet hearth in wintertime” when he read the poems of his namesake Walther von der Vogelweide. In the interview Kaufmann says Walther is "at the very top of my ‘to-do' list,” and one can hear why—as one might also wish for Kaufmann to play Lohengrin after hearing the next selection, "In fernem Land.” Of course the Grail Knight's Act III monologue provides much less dramatic contrast than the other roles, especially Tannhauser's monologue, but Kaufmann sings with a rather unearthly nobility and glow that suits the part very well. Incidentally, we hear not only the well-known music but a second section that Wagner cut just before the premiere, and are given the luxury touches for a few bars of the Deutsche Oper Chorus and of Brűck, now playing the King.

Biographers still speculate on the exact nature of Wagner's amorous involvement with Mathilde Wesendonck, but we have the five poems of hers that he set to music with piano accompaniment and published in 1857-8, "for a woman's voice” (Frauenstimme). Wagner labeled the third and fifth songs "Studies for Tristan and Isolde,” and did orchestrate the fifth song, "Träume” (Dreams), for a private performance, but we are used to hearing Felix Möttl's orchestration of the whole set. We're certainly not used to hearing a man sing the songs, but the texts of these poems of hope and longing are not gender-specific: it is rare but not unheard of for a capable male voice to attempt the cycle, as Kaufmann does here in a revelatory performance.

The performances of the first two songs have their rewards, though I found Kaufmann's ascents into head-voice in "Der Engel” not altogether satisfying. (For me he manages it better in the third song, "Im Treibhaus.”) But the last three songs are superlatively well done, and again credit must be given to the partnership of singer and conductor. "In the Hothouse” opens with music which Wagner would eventually use for the beginning of Act III of Tristan und Isolde to portray the desolation of both a seacoast and the heart of the hero separated from his lover, but here describes a tropical plant "trapped” in a greenhouse far from its natural home, or so the singer, him/herself in exile, imagines it. The music almost uncannily suggests the humidity of the hothouse and the isolation of the poet, and as Runnicles conducts it I've never heard the middle portion sound so much like Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo (which more or less quotes other parts of Tristan) or the ending sound so much like Alban Berg (e.g., his Altenberg Lieder) as the pizzicato strings depict drops of moisture falling like tears from the plant.

No. 4, "Schmerzen” (pains or sorrows) is a much more extroverted outburst, and Kaufmann sings quite passionately throughout, as the song builds inexorably to the climax of "O wie dank' ich” ("Oh, how thankful I am” [that, just as the sun returns at dawn, my sorrows will turn to "wonder”]). Finally, "Träume” is sung with the intimacy of an art song rather than the declamation of an aria, with the beauty of the voice and the throbbing pulse of the accompaniment seeming to linger long after the song has faded away.

Throughout the recital, the orchestra is recorded extremely well, with each section and soloist vividly present and clearly located. (Kaufmann raves about the "fantastic” acoustics of "the broadcast studio of the old East Berlin radio building” where the music was recorded.) The tenor's voice too is revealed in its wide range of colorings and dynamics, though as I listened on two different systems I was slightly bothered by a sense of the voice being not just closer than one hears in the concert hall (as one expects on recordings) but having a faint metallic tinge, no doubt stemming from the separate mic'ing. But this was not nearly prominent enough to diminish my enjoyment of the recital.





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