CD Review: Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Selige Stunde’
German Tenor & Helmut Deutsch Team Up For Fantastic RecitalBy Freddy Dominguez
Jonas Kaufmann is a lucky man.
While much of the music world has reeled during the pandemic, he has had the luxury of reflecting, recharging, and revisiting old musical haunts: Lieder.
The results are exceptional; a lovely album, maybe Kaufmann’s best recital disc yet.
Be it because of these strangest of times, the uncommon recording space (it was recorded in “private quarters”), Kaufmann’s personal affection for the repertoire, or the special rapport between singer and accompanist (Helmut Deutsch), this album feels intimate. It feels like a turn inward.
Kaufmann sounds completely at ease. Past non-operatic projects — especially his go at Italian songs and operetta fare– though quite good have been overly touched by exactitude and certain tics: cue the mannered vocal throbbing.
Not so here. This album exhibits that classic oaken sound, but with a variety of textures and colorations. There are revelatory moments when he achieves a kind of lightness that is not the result of an unsupported voice or a souped-up mic, but of an ever-more astounding technique that allows for vocal dexterity.
The tenor’s efforts are all kept in line by the prodigious talents of Deutsch whose playing — elegant, focused, and clear– provides a clear spine for each piece without sacrificing intensity.
A Generous Program
This album is loaded with familiar songs and perennial chestnuts mostly in the Germanic repertoire.
But this is not a greatest hits collection. The artists have carefully selected a range of thematically linked songs going back to Mozart passing through Schubert and arriving at Mahler and Strauss (though not in chronological order).
The dominant theme is simple: love.
There is the excitement and expectation of young love in a feathery take of Schubert’s “Der Musensohn” and in Beethoven’s twinkling “Zärtliche Liebe.” Longing and regret pulsate in Tchaikovsky’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt.” More declamatory expressions of love come through a multi-hued reading of Edvard Grieg’s “Ich liebe dich” and in an unfettered, robust take on Strauss’s “Zueignung.” And there are nods at non-romantic affection too with a predictably gentle “Cradle Song” by Brahms and a wistful rendition of Dvořák’s tear-jerker, “Als die alte Mutter.”
The core of the album comes midway with two songs that avoid extremes, while still expressing bliss. Shooting above any earthiness of “I love you” or “I miss you,” the title track “Selige Stunde” by Alexander Zemlisky speaks of transformation, of a kind of love that takes you to a higher plane. In Chopin’s irresistibly gorgeous melody (as arranged by Alois Melichar), “In mir klingt ein Lied,” there is more “stunde” to be heard as love blossoms into “tender music.”
The effectiveness of Kaufmann’s talents are most audible in these two tracks; models of tonal beauty and elegant restraint. Fireworks have gone off, but there is nothing forced in how the songs are sung– casual, gentle, and in this way a touch decadent.
There is, however, a twist. As the album closes, it starts to detach from romance in any traditional sense and starts a journey toward solitude. The singer wanders, alone, into nature. Schubert’s atmospheric “Die Forelle” is sung with a wry smile, a more brooding excursion follows in Schumann’s “Mondnacht” and then, at the very end, there is nothing.
The album’s last two tracks arrive at a sort of quarantine. Kaufmann is forlorn, anxious, and finally resigned in Hugo Wolf’s “Veborgenheit.” With purposeful quietude amid light and shade, the disc ends with Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” and with the appropriate final phrase, sung in turn sweet and with resonance: “I live alone in my heaven, in my love and in my song.”
In the liner notes Kaufmann says that this recording took him, and implicitly us, “closer to the zeitgeist of these pieces, most of which were originally performed in more intimate settings, namely, in private circles.”
This seems fitting and essential for the times when we find ourselves in desperate need of vast vistas from the safety of our homes. The world, for a moment at least, has become smaller but music helps cover lost ground.