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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Recordings Review: One Man Against the World

Jonas Kaufmann sings Mahler solo.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The mysterious Jonas Kaufmann.
Photo by Julian Hargreaves for Sony Classical.
How does a singer start his next act? If you're Jonas Kaufmann, the heartthrob tenor who is known for his good looks, stage presence and (more recently) frequent cancellations, you do it on record. Mr. Kaufmann is known for the lighter Wagner tenor roles (Lohengrin, Parsifal) as well as heroic parts in the operas of Puccini, Bizet and Massenet. However his newest recording, released this spring by Sony Classical is something different: a solo flight through Mahler’s autumnal epic Das Lied Von der Erde.

This recording features a major orchestra behind the star tenor: the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Jonathan Nott. Mr. Nott is an English conductor schooled in the German kapellmeister tradition. He is currently music director of l'Orchestra de la Suisse Romande. Mahler intended for his work to be performed by either a pairing of tenor and alto or tenor and baritone, alternating the six movements. However on this recording, Mr. Kaufmann is the only singer featured.

Mahler began work on Das Lied in 1907, as work therapy following the death of his daughter. He finished the short score one year later but did not live to hear it performed. It is a song cycle in six movements. The text is German, translations of seven Chinese poems by different authors all drawn from The Chinese Flute, a collection of eight century verse assembled by one Hans Bethge. Acting as his own librettist, Mahler chose poems of sorrow, joy, lost love and drunkenness. In his hands, these verses become universal and deeply profound.

Mahler originally slotted Das Liedn to be his Ninth Symphony, but changed his mind right before publication. He released the piece as a "symphonic song cycle" instead. Das Lied bridges the gap between song and symphony, and is one of Mahler’s crowning achievements. The opening movement uses the full weight and force of the orchestra, but the later ones (with the exception of the finale) are short and spare. Mahler experiments with severe orchestration and impressionist textures while pushing the flexible boundaries of tonality.

The first movement opens with a bold horn call answered by a trumpet-like musical line for the tenor. The music leaps into brilliant life here with Mr.Kaufmann pushing the outer limit of his instrument over a surging and pounding orchestra. Mr. Nott knows his way here, steering through shifting clouds of orchestration and always supporting the high-flying tenor part with sturdy piers of sound.

The second movement is the first written for the second voice. Titled "The Lonely One in Autumn" it is the work’s slow movement, with a long and elegiac oboe solo that yields to an emotive outpouring. The unique 19th century style oboes preferred by the Vienna Philharmonic are heard to good effect here, with a rich and plaintive tone. Mr. Kaufmann seems at ease vocally, singing languid lines over a diaphanous accompaniment of strings and harps.

There is no scherzo. However, the next three movements form a kind of intermezzo: a tripartite structure similar to the middle span of the same composer’s Symphony No 7. Mr. Nott makes the orchestra dance and Mr. Kaufmann sounds at ease and enthusiastic. Having these three songs sung by a single voice also makes the idea of these songs as "one large movement" work. Mr. Kaufmann sounds genial here, carrying the flow of ideas forward through these three relatively cheerful movements.

And then playtime ends, with the muffled pizzicato chords that open the last and longest movement. Der Abschied ("The Farewell") is the work's long and lugubrious abgesang, sung with accuracy and poignancy by this atypical voice. Mr’ Kaufmann makes no attempt  to hide his natural timbre here, instead using it to great effect in this series of strophic verses. The fade out at the end over the words "Ewig...ewig..." (added to the text by Mahler himself) is st once triumphal and resigned, ending in a state of meditative bliss. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.