Carnegie Hall 2021-22 Review: Jonas Kaufmann in Recital
Jonas Kaufmann’s Musical Spell is Interrupted by Audience’s AnticsBy Chris Ruel
Credit: Jennifer Taylor
Way Back Before Times, in Sept. 2019, violin virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter stopped mid-concerto to confront an audience member filming during her performance. Her beef with the velvet-chair concert documentarian centered on rudeness, lack of respect, and the fleeting nature of live music. But since there isn’t a second chance to experience the magic once the notes have been played or sung, people want to capture it. I get that.
Turns out, Jonas Kaufmann, like Mutter, isn’t big on seeing raised smartphones. During his sixth encore, the tenor halted the show and laid out the same reasoning as Mutter’s for his ire: stop being rude and show some respect. But his slap carried a little something extra: the word “stupid,” as in don’t be by blatantly holding the phone in the air like a lighter at Bon Jovi concert. Personally, I thought the “stupid” remark crossed the line, but he was clearly frustrated, not just by the filming, but by two other incidents that the tenor acknowledged with less-than-pleased body language.
Very early in the performance, there was a seating issue in the front row, downstage left. Kaufmann and the audience waited for a good thirty seconds for the person to get situated. The tenor, with tight lips, shook his head, gave a shrug of his shoulders, and tried to get back into his groove, but the damage was done to his flow state. To the tenor’s credit, he did whip out a charming smile to lighten the moment, but it was an inauspicious start.
Then there was the cellphone that started ringing as if on cue when Kaufmann concluded his second encore, completely breaking the spell of the music.
Four encores later, the tenor had enough.
Since reading of Mutter’s rebuke, I’ve debated with others and with myself about whether artists should scold from the stage. Is grinding a concert to an awkward standstill and finger-wagging simply a case of divo or diva preciousness? Or is it an honest grievance that needs to be addressed in more effective ways? Perhaps, the better question is why artists need to say anything at all to camera offenders? Shouldn’t the onus fall on the venue to enforce the rules?
Whose Problem is it?
The last time I reviewed a Carnegie Hall performance, there was a filming issue as well. I wrote in my review of Hibla Gerzmava that the ushers engaged in a game of whack-a-mole, scurrying up and down the aisles to tell people to stop recording. The policy policing was just as distracting as the phones, and it seriously marred the recital.
The Kaufmann audience wasn’t as brazen as Gerzmava’s and that cut down on the ushers patrolling and parading up and down the aisles, but the war against phone cameras is one Carnegie Hall seems to be losing. The problem needs fixing because no matter how justified the tenor’s scolding; it was an awful way to conclude what was an excellent performance.
Without effective enforcement, you get what happened on Saturday night—a performance to be remembered by those in attendance not entirely on its merits, but by the actions of ill-mannered guests and the artist’s reaction to their behavior.
That being said, the Carnegie Hall audience, or what remained of it after six encores, offered the tenor a solid round of applause for his candor.
Filming kerfuffle aside, Kaufmann displayed once more why his star is one of the brightest in classical vocal music today. His voice, at times, was spinto gold, while at others, merely a whisper as he took on an eclectic program featuring Liszt, Schubert, Mozart, R. Schumann, Dvořák, Brahms, Bohm, Chopin/Melichar, Tchaikovsky, R. Strauss, Zemlinsky, and Hugo Wolf.
Kaufmann’s past performances at Carnegie Hall have packed the auditorium, and this time around was no different. The line wrapped around the block as the crowd waited to enter with proof of vaccination and photo id. The fans were abuzz, and not even their masks couldn’t contain the excitement and anticipation of Kaufmann’s appearance (The venue required masks to be worn the entire performance. I’m grateful for that because physical distancing was non-existent; this was Carnegie Hall packed to the gills).
An Eclectic Program But Not Without Unifying Themes
The Oct. 9, 2021 program comprised lieder from two pandemic-borne recordings: “Freudvoll und Leidvoll (Full of Joy)” and “Selige Stunde (Blessed Hour).” Kaufmann engaged longtime collaborator, pianist Helmut Deutsch for both, and the renowned pianist was in brilliant form, partnering with the tenor live to create an evening of matchless song that focused on two themes: joy and sorrow, and love.
“Selige Stunde,” Kaufmann’s first solo venture during the pandemic, featured songs of romance, and the album looms large in the second half of the concert, pairing nicely with the selections from the “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” recording’s reflections on sorrow and joy. Where there’s former, there’s bound to be a dash (or more) of the latter.
Kaufmann opened the program with nine pieces by Liszt, mining the theme of love, joy, and sorrow. The composer, generally linked to piano works, composed eighty-seven songs for voice and piano, plus sixteen for voice and orchestra. These, like his piano and orchestral works, are virtuosic pieces that test the limits of an artist. Kaufmann didn’t shy away from tackling Liszt’s technical demands.
The tenor was high caliber all evening, but here are the pieces that caught my ear as the night’s standouts.
The first of the Liszt pieces was “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder (My songs are filled with poison),” a piece with words by Heinrich Heine, which expressed the anger and bitterness that poisoned the heart of a jilted lover. Kaufmann’s spinto was aflame with resentment and its sound powerful and broad.
In stark contrast was “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome (In the Rhine, the beautiful river),” the second piece by Liszt. Here the gentleness of the flowing Rhein drifted into the audience upon the serene sound of Kaufmann’s delicate vocals that then soared in triumph as the poet spoke of Cologne’s magnificent cathedral reflected in the river’s waters. Within that cathedral hangs an image of the Virgin, whose face he equates with that of his love’s. Except for the largeness of voice at the first mention of the cathedral, “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” was the tenor at his most tender, with hints of anguish in tone and dynamics.
Staying with contrasts, “Freudvoll und Leidvoll, S. 280bis and S. 280 (Full of Joy),” musically explores the emotions of joy and sorrow using two settings of the same poem by Goethe. The sorrow setting is a quiet reflection upon the soul that Kaufmann sung with delicate plaintiveness in the legato lines before crescendoing with blaring anguish. The concept of joy, explored in the second setting, is a bouncy number that Kaufmann’s mid and upper range tackled with delightful boisterousness.
“O lieb, solang du lieben kannst (O love, love as long as you can!),” brought out Kaufmann’s top notes which rang clear and vigorous, as the poem muses on the fleetness of life, imploring those in love to grasp it while they can, and to mind, their tongues less hurtful words should flow. Along with displaying strength up top, the tenor played with more subtle elements of shading and interpretation to bring out the beauty of Liszt’s composition and Freiligrath’s poetry.
Liszt’s setting of Goethe’s “Es war ein König in Thule (There was a king in Thule),” displayed Kaufmann’s rich storytelling abilities as he relates the story of the King of Thule whose beloved mistress has died, but before her passing, he gave her a golden beaker from which he drank at every feast after her death. The king grew old and when it was time to die, he drank from it one last time before hurling it into the sea. The poetry and music blended into one narrative of love and loss.
This same knack for narration came through in “Die drei Zigeuner (The Three Gypsies),” with text by Nikolaus Lenau. In this song, gypsies provide the narrator with a life lesson in joy. Kaufmann’s opening bars leave him utterly exposed without backing. It was one of those wonderful and fleeting moments where pure voice hits the ears and you realize there’s no other instrument like it in type or kind, especially that of Kaufmann’s.
The Liszt selections, as sung by the tenor, were dreamy with flashes of power that reminded the audience why Kaufmann is known for Wagner and Verdi when on the opera stage.
Moving into the second half of the program, Kaufmann led off with Schubert’s “Der Musensohn (The Son of the Muses),” which was a delightful work brought to life through bright lines in this dancey, drinking-song style piece set to Goethe’s words.
Later in the program, the tenor sang a second piece by Schubert, “Wandrers Nachtlied II,” with the composer once more setting the words of Goethe. The piece is a lullaby of sorts, its melody full of peace and quietude that Kaufmann fully explores with soporific sweetness and the warmth of a cozy sweater.
Speaking of lullabies, Brahm’s “Wiegenlied (Lullaby),” whose familiar theme has lulled so many of us to sleep as children and which plays upon the heart sweet reminisces of bedtime tenderness, Kaufmann vocalized so subtly and with such affection, it was downright therapeutic after nearly two years of pandemic and isolation. The tenor took a well-trod melody and made it fresh with a tranquility infused timbre and pacing.
Kaufmann’s strong spinto produced a rousing and triumphant take on Strauss’ “Zueignung, (Dedication)” with text by Hermann von Gilm centered on the redeeming power of love. The lush melody was full of modulations that keep the ear happy and engaged.
The intimacy of Zemlinsky’s “Selige Stunde, (Blessed Hour)” brought the audience into Kaufmann’s heart as he laid down a satin-smooth line of smoldering longing. This he followed up by “Verborgenheit (Seclusion),” by Hugo Wolf with text by Eduard Mörike, yet another piece musing on the gift of love, though this time exploring the poet’s desire to remain secluded from romance, and thus avoid the pain of breaking apart.
Kaufmann ended the announced program with the last song from “Selige Stunde” recording Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world).” Friedrich Rückert’s text raises the listener’s soul to the peace in love and in song.
How Many Encores Are Too Many
After being warmly greeted by Kaufmann—who shared in the excitement of those in the auditorium—the tenor was in excellent form, though he seemed to tire around encore number four, straining a bit up top and wandering slightly off-pitch at times.
I’ll be blunt, (like Kaufmann in his scolding); there’s that old showbiz saw that reminds performers to leave the crowd wanting more. Six encores after a 75-minute show smacked of ego and contributed to the filming imbroglio. Even the ushers were caught flat-footed by what became an entire show unto itself. After encore two, they had already begun pushing wheelchairs up the aisles. Each time the duo would re-appear, people at the exits would stop and watch.
That’s when most cameras came out, and the tenor’s frustration boiled over.
I don’t blame people for thinking that since the show was technically “over,” what’s the harm in grabbing a digital memento; it wasn’t like Kaufmann was mid-recital. He was giving most of the crowd what they wanted, but even fans grumbled—along with the stomachs of my seatmates, who told me they were famished and had hoped to grab a bite after the show. The abundance of encores dashed those gastronomic plans.
The tenor’s return to New York with pockets full of tender lieder after the devastation wrought upon the city by the pandemic was supposed to be huge, and it was. It’s just too bad about those who chose to be stupid— his word, not mine—and cause the performance to end with fireworks of the non-musical kind.