Here is the story of a man and his brook… the poet and the maiden, the tenor and his Schubert. In other words – Jonas Kaufmann in Santa Monica, MLK day, 2018. Thirty somethings, 80 somethings, 39s, 48s, 24s… be-earringed, high-heeled, suited, sweat-shirted, flaming red and ocean blue hair, finely-knit sweaters, plain black jackets – all pressed through the doors of the smart, exquisite, 500 seat Broad Performing Arts Theater on 11the Street in Santa Monica, the stunning harmonious setting for an evening they had been eagerly waiting for.
The 7:30 p.m. start time caused a quick-quick gobble of the elegant lobby reception so no one would miss a note. At 7:45 p.m., the beautiful stage was as yet bare but for the gleaming grand piano and twin stanchions of pastel flowers on sumi-e stands. Was he in the building? Was this actually going to become the Temple of Art that he inhabits in Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Paris, London? Was he actually going to appear? A quick step past the front row by the Director, a gasp or two in the orchestra and in the balcony.
He had disappointed audiences in near memory; not at the last moment, it’s true, but, who knew? Not capricious but careful, Jonas Kaufmann was, from the audience’s point of view, theirs, and if they came, and traveled and paid, they wanted their piece of him, then and there. No doubt, he strove for the best all around – the well-being of his voice and the pleasure of their company. Then, it was 7:48, 7:49, 7:50… and “voilà.” Leading his close associate accompanist and former teacher, the internationally renown pianist, Helmut Deutsch, the man of the hour smiled and two-stepped from stage right before them, both of them elegantly dressed in white tie and tails, shoes gleaming, and all smiles, if a bit sheepish. Miracle of miracles. A couple of minutes of applause preluded the brisk opening notes of Deutsch’s vigorous piano: Schubert’s “Die Schöne Mullerin” arrived.
Schubert’s Genius Explored
And the Song Cycle? New, young love uncovered, love explored, loved unrequited: the story of the ages. In the young Schubert’s hands, the poem cycle of Wilhelm Müller not only more “formally” introduced the art song into the music repertoire, but lay a wreath on it: young and never old, various and never dull, textured and never bland, the wanderer – poet- lover – offers ardor and various shades of tenderness and beautiful perception to the charming miller’s daughter and in turn to us, hanging on his every word. As he sings of rushing waters of a babbling brook, he conjures up the living being, the young millermaid herself, an example of late 18th and 19th Romantic poetry’s “pathetic fallacy,” embodied in the form of a person… the brook, a natural embodiment of the young maiden herself. “Mein rauschender Freund,” he addresses the rushing waters, “Liebes Bächlein,” lovely/loving little stream, brook, am I getting this right – are you calling to me, is all your freshness and charm and delight… possibly for me, to be given to me? Woman and rushing waters, one and the same, nature and embodied form.
While some critics have tossed off Müller’s cycle of poems as being far less substantial than Schubert’s musical version, the poems themselves have not only poignancy and ardor, but deft language, delicate perception, musical diction, filled with internal and external rime, assonance, alliteration, and apt repetition, which Schubert capitalizes on; in several different instances, repeating the musical line without words and so heightening meaning and feeling through Deutsch’s elegant solo piano. Key modulations in the repetitions and elsewhere heighten meaning and feeling. Schubert fashioned such a touching and eloquent expression of the age-old story, and many fine singers have performed it since 1826. Baritones like Fischer-Dieskau and Christian Gerhahrer and Hermann Prey as well as tenors like Kaufmann and Ian Bostridge and, of course, Fritz Wunderlich, have brought their interpretations to the fore. And well might they: In little over one hour of song we are given a veritable diary of human emotion – the time almost too short for all its variations – exhilaration, pique, gladness, dismay, pure joy, surprise, amazement, in fact, despair – both tenors and baritones alternate depths and heights of expression, each in their own remarkable beauty.
The Tenor We All Dream Of
Kaufmann transforms the cycle from pure lyric poem and song to dramatic presentation, showing once again, how carefully he simultaneously couples narrative, emotion, and musical richness. “Willkommen Liebes Bächlein,” welcome lovely brook, welcomes him as performer and us as audience as well. Where are we? In the intimate auditorium so artistically designed and alive, or in the natural landscape which Kaufmann creates simply standing next to the fine musicianship of Helmut Deutsch? We do not know nor do we inquire. Instead we pursue the living embodiment of the young wanderer on this journey of heart. A chance to sport in the woods as the tenor’s whole body – face, feet, hands, eyebrows and toes embody the excitement of music alive and resonant. That is one feature so moving about Kaufmann’s intelligent and aesthetic singing… he brings the scene and the situation alive, and feelings with conviction. It is a promise made by all great art, and which we who offer ourselves to it, make again in each fine performance.
Kaufmanns articulates individual words with special care, enunciation satisfies, and emphasizes meaning. “Bleiben”, for instance in #7, “Ungeduld,” Impatience, remain, or stay, he sings the delicate triplet to emphasize the faithfulness he vows. Subtle and definitive, the idea, the meaning, the sound, he compounds on purpose. And this followed by the plaintive, hymn-like “Guten Morgen, schöne Müllerin,” a contrast that shows the young man’s fastidiousness in not wanting to jar her – she “turns her little head” – he wants to do it all perfectly, wanderer- lover- poet- and singer – caring for each movement and gesture, facial, eyes bright and expressive, looking abjest when he begins to see her turn from him. Oh surely she won’t reject such a felicitous courting, will she?
That’s what stands out, stanza after stanza, throughout the twenty-song cycle – through the “pianissimi” Kaufmann offers, and the legato lines when he begins to lament in growing awareness of the loss to come – “Mein Schats hat’s Grun so gern” – poet and composer playing on the melancholy that contrast so strongly to his earlier declaration in #11, MEIN, when he asserts, she IS HIS. Until he bursts out, we have almost forgotten the volume Kaufmann’s voice possesses, what he has in his store. When he begins to encounter hunter and the maiden’s shifting hearts, even after he has dismissed his own earlier pining, which he thought were great, until now, in comparison with this weight of love and faithfulness and commitment, they are nothing.
All this variety is a perfect vehicle for Kaufmann’s versatility. From opening buoyancy through the colors of joy and celebration to despair and loss, he gives us a palette of music that enlivens and entices in every word, the sweet and the bitter flowing from the same source from within, always carefully estimated for full and fragility of feeling. He embodies the whole, as if his body itself sang, eyebrows to toes. He is not simply a teller or singer of the tale – but, the music itself, and we listen as he links this to us and wherever the song goes when it is gone.
But is it? Perhaps not. Just as the concert was not… for six plus encores later, almost all German, except for the the exquisite “Ombra di Nube,” in Italian, and the English translation of “Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz,” while the audience clapping and clapping wanting more and more. Gracious, he gave what they wanted, while trying to sustain the mood and the magic of the Schubert he so skillfully conveyed; but they wanted the volume and the luster that Kaufmann is also known for, and brings from his tenor and operatic realm. Young members of the audience seemed highly responsive to such immediacy of this glamour, the art songs an acquired taste for some of them. Other audience members cheered vociferously whatever he offered. And even so, it was hard to let any of it go, bouquets of red and white and yellow roses were hardly enough to shower on both Deutsch and Kaufmann for their artistic merit and gifts. “Gute Nacht,” Good Night, Schubert’s last song, a lullaby, could have been apt closure to it all, but the epilogue of encores threw it all into the commotion of high song.
Still, the intimacy and quiet of the main music, as Kaufmann himself said in his perfect English, the theater offered with its wonderful acoustics. And us, who will hardly relinquish the beautiful cycle even for the expansive depths of “Winterreise” and the languorous eroticism of Strauss Lieder, what we can only imagine Schubert would have produced had he lived longer than 31 years, several past the brilliant John Keats, and four less than Shelley and Byron. All we can wish is that the still-in-his-prime Jonas Kaufmann, 47, will continue to offer his substantial intelligent artistry to us for many more years to come.