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Review: Tenor Jonas Kaufmann Brings Sincerity and Earnestness To Schubert’s Quintessential Song Cycle at Carnegie

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, January 23, 2018

Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin is a peculiar thing, part Romantic tragedy, part fairy-tale, part parade of gentle ironies, and part teenage melodrama, at once heart-on-sleeve and eloquent in what it doesn’t say. It’s also one of the finest song-cycles ever written, one of the great high-points in Schubert’s enormous output, and a defining moment in Nineteenth-Century Western music.

Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch gave a near-ideal account of it this past Saturday evening at Carnegie Hall, largely by remembering how it would have played in its own time, as a fable or exemplary tale pointing a gentle moral in terms that were intended to charm and amuse, all drawn from the popular poet Wilhelm Müller’s cycle, then still hot off the presses, which started out as part of a parlor-game.

Schubert chose not to set Müller’s prologue and epilogue, but everyone who heard it when it was new would have understood that it was meant to be an entertainment—as Müller put it, einem funkelnagelneuen Spiel/In einem funkelnagelneusten Styl (“a shiny new show in the very latest style”)—ending with a tragic dénouement that may not be what it seems, and a sort of curtain-speech in which the poet throws up his hands, says “Make of it what you will!,” and turns out the lights.

The plot is simple and familiar: boy goes out in search of love and adventure, thinks he’s found the girl of his dreams, gets his heart broken, wants to die, and (maybe) does. Still, it’s more As You Like It than Die Winterreise, and even the supposed suicide has a pathetic-absurd quality to it, as if Petrouchka were trying out the Liebestod.

Kaufmann played all this perfectly, which is to say that he played it straight: the young protagonist had all the sweet, dopey, cheerful naïveté you could ask for, so his complete misreading of his beloved’s behavior towards him (she toys with him and treats him like dirt, while he sees only the smile on her face) was absolutely credible, and all his adolescent moonings, jealous bluster, and wild self-dramatization rang perfectly true. As he contemplated dying for love, his sincerity was as dreadful as his expression was gorgeous—the surest sign that his principal audience was himself. (Face it, folks: we’ve all been here and done this.)

It’s a long piece, with beauties galore, and once Kaufmann and Deutsch got warmed up, it was one lovely, glove-fitting thing after another, far too many to enumerate. A few warm the memory still: the exquisite tonal discrimination between “hands” and “heart,” with only a single syllable intervening, in “Dankgesang an den Bach;” the urgent wonder and doubt contained in a microtonally flattened “Was bist du wunderlich!” (in effect, “Why won’t you speak?”), in “Der Neugierige;” and each and every one of Müller’s many repeated words and parallel images individually characterized and shaded—the four “bleiben” in “Ungeduld,” and the various herbs and flowers in “Die liebe Farbe” were especially telling.

Every word was clear, and nearly every note was perfectly projected, even at the threshhold of inaudibility. This was wonderful acting and singing, and while Deutsch and Kaufmann may not have “seemed to be one” quite as much as Schubert said he and his friend Vogel were, they must have come close.

If there was a flaw in the performance, it was that Kaufmann often stepped back and dropped out of character between numbers, but that is understandable, given that Kaufmann’s fans were out in force, and many of them had plainly come for the encores—there was more than the usual amount of rustling and throat-clearing during the main event, and a lot of that started a note or two before the music stopped.  (Even my companion, who loves Die schöne Müllerin above all things, whispered “Nessun dorma!” during the first of many ovations.)

The encores were perfection, but the cycle was near-bliss; if the audience’s concentration had come near the performers’, it would have been bliss pure and simple.

Helmut Deutsch and Jonas Kaufmann in recital at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.

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Jonas Kaufmann, tenor and Helmut Deutsch, piano in recital at Carnegie Hall on Saturday, January 20, 2018.

SCHUBERT Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795

Encores:

SCHUBERT “Der Jüngling an der Quelle,” D. 300

SCHUBERT “Der Musensohn,” D. 764

SCHUBERT “Die Forelle,” D. 550

SCHUBERT “Der Lindenbaum,” from Die Winterreise, D. 911

 

Cover: (l. to r.) Helmut Deutsch, piano and Jonas Kaufmann, tenor in recital at Carnegie Hall; photo: Jennifer Taylor.


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