CD Review: Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘It’s Christmas!’

A Mixed Bag That Showcases Tenor At Glorious Best in German Lied

By Bob Dieschburg

At least since the advent of the compact disc has the music industry realized the commercial potential of the Christmas season and long is the line of illustrious voices who have, in turn, indulged in the more or less tasteful rendition of classics like “Adeste Fideles” or “White Christmas.” Even as sophisticated a stylist as Carlo Bergonzi has recorded a very personal, legato heavy version of Irving Berlin’s warhorse.

Yet it is also historically true that Christmas albums come at a relatively late stage in our favorite tenors’ careers and Jonas Kaufmann’s is no exception. This certainly applies to the second disc of his new release with its extensive 42 tracks. Though not as prominent as during his late recital at the Eiffel Art Studios in Budapest, his relative unease is a constant companion of the more operatic tracks in particular.

The “Cantique de Noel,” for instance, seems vaguely reticent and is neither as sculptural as in the 2014 clip from Arnsdorf, Austria, nor as penetrating and spiritual as in his performance at Dresden’s Frauenkirche in 2008 (both on YouTube).

Add some unnecessary arrangements, a series of rather guttural diminuendos, and some optional high notes to make “It’s Christmas!” as platitudinous a listening experience as it is uninspired from an artistic point of view. Its culmination, one may find, is the awkward rendition of Mariah Carey’s pop classic: “All I want for Christmas is you” turns out a tonal jumble with some out-of-place crooning and falsetto tones.

A German Christmas

Fortunately, there is another disc! With its selection of German, mostly 19th-century carols it salvages whatever stylistic dubiousness the producers would have otherwise chosen to settle on. And most of all, it audibly reinforces what Kaufmann’s engagements have long revealed to be at the core of the great tenor’s art: an immeasurable sensitivity to the form and content of the German Lied.

The proverbial smile is of course absent from the velvety sound of his middle register, lending some penetrating depth and graveness to the elegiac movement of “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging.” A Catholic pilgrimage song, this meditative piece about the Incarnation captures the general tone of the album’s first part which, luckily, need not rely on the Stradella-attributed “Pietà Signore” and other evergreens to capture both ears and the imagination.

It is rather his unfailing grasp of emotional nuances that makes Kaufmann a singing actor sui generis. Consequently, none of the first 26 tracks are deliberately operatic, as the voice relies on the expressive means of the Kunstlied to imbue each carol with his own, personal interpretation: Seldom does Kaufmann venture beyond a generic mezzo forte and the occasional graininess on the vowels of the passaggio and above is more than made up for by his phrasing abilities and great philological insight.

Take, for example, the iambic accentuation of “Engel haben Himmelslieder” or the Baroque solemnity in the opening lines of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” which reveals the same penetrating, artistic sincerity as, say, the couplets from “Ännchen von Tharau” released on the singer’s acclaimed Lied recital earlier this year: “Selige Stunde” and “It’s Christmas!” are both thematically and from a stylistic perspective closer than the corny makeup and cover photo of the latter may suggest.

The Singing Polyglot

Most of the success of “It’s Christmas!” therefore hinges on Kaufmann’s language skills and the versatility with which he is showcasing them. The range includes some Austrian dialects (“Es Wird Scho Glei Dumpa” and “Im Woid Is So Staad”), as well as Macaronic Latin (“In Dulci Jubilo”) and French (“Entre le Boeuf et l’Ane Gris”).

While the Munich-born tenor has had ample opportunity to prove his ease with the international vernacular both on stage and CD, the addition of English seems to strangely exacerbate Kaufmann’s tendency to “swallow” the vowels. What the Germans amiably refer to as “Knödeln” nolens volens gets illustrated in Adam’s “Cantique de Noel” or – even more tragically – in the preceding “Adeste Fideles” when the switch from German to English is startlingly disruptive. The darkened sound of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” leaves doubt as to whether we are even listening to the same tenor!

All things considered, “It’s Christmas!” is an attractive enterprise that does not deserve unmitigated support. Too blatant is its commercial profile, too bold the step into the American repertoire which appears bewildering at best and caricatural at worst.

Yet there is also a lot that the opera buff may cherish and the somewhat obscure Liederbuch with its centuries-old Christmas carols has some memorable moments of deeply felt spirituality.

A listening recommendation to end: start with the second part of the album as the first one is a much-deserved palate-cleanser after the infamous “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”


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