Jonas Kaufmann Proves Less than Ideally Suited to Lieder by Richard Strauss

20/05/2018

Korngold, R. Strauss and Elgar: Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jochen Rieder (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 19.5.2018. (AS)

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), BBC SO & Jochen Rieder (conductor) (c) Mark Allan/Barbican

KorngoldSchauspiel Overture

R. StraussIntermezzo – Symphonic Interlude No.2, ‘Träumerei am Kamin’; ‘Ruhe, meine Seele’ Op.27 No.1; ‘Freundliche Vision’ Op.48 No.1; ‘Befreit’ Op.39 No.4; ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ Op.23 No.3; Vier leztze Lieder, Op. posth.

Elgar – Overture, In the South (‘Alassio’), Op.50

The main focus of this concert, postponed from February 2017, was Jonas Kaufmann’s controversial performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. And just so that we should realise that fact, the work was presented as the final item, the climax of a rather oddly devised programme. Whether or not Kaufmann had any qualms about singing this work, there was a slight sense of strain as he produced the opening low notes that begin the first song, “Frühling”. And soon one had the feeling of a miscast soloist.  Strauss’s orchestration is written to match the sounds of a voice that can soar above the instrumental lines in a way that has been so effective in performances by great sopranos of yesterday and today. Kaufmann’s voice, rooted in a lower register, simply did not have the chance to emerge sufficiently from the orchestral accompaniment, even though Jochen Rieder’s handling of the BBC Symphony Orchestra players was admirably sensitive and discreet. The words of “September” are not quite appropriate for a male performer either, even though Kaufmann produced a nice tone quality in this song, as he did in “Beim Schlafengehen” and in the final “Im Abendrot”, where he well conjured an effect of what might be described as stillness, a peaceful acceptance of the inevitability of death, as intimated in Eichendoff’s text. So, there was much to admire in Kaufmann’s singing per se, but some female performers of the work have invested it with more singular characterisation.

The one encore, Strauss’s Morgen!, produced the most beautifully rapt singing of the evening, rather better than Kaufmann’s rendering of four Strauss songs in the first half of the concert. The first three of these were rather similar in mood and largely reflective, and Kaufmann responded appropriately, but not seemingly with enormous conviction. He managed the positive ending of ‘Befriet’ skillfully, and the livelier ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ had a good heroic feeling, but in general this was not the finest interpretation of Strauss Lieder that one has heard.

Jochen Rieder began the concert with a rarity, Korngold’s Schauspiel Overture, written when the composer was just 14 years old. The influence of Strauss is obvious in this piece, as are hints of other composers of the day and the music hall. As in so much of this composer’s music you feel that something important is going to happen, but it never quite does. The gulf in quality between the music of Korngold and Strauss was immediately demonstrated in Rieder’s tender performance of the second interlude from Strauss’s opera Intermezzo, with its lovely, long flowing melodic line and exquisite scoring. Here and in his accompaniment to the Strauss songs Rieder’s conducting was indeed most impressive: at the beginning of the concert’s second half he also directed a passionate, very exciting account of Elgar’s In the South, with the varied and contrasting episodes of the work strongly characterised and with brilliant playing from the BBC SO. Somewhat perversely, perhaps, I would suggest that Jochen Rieder was the hero of the evening.

Alan Sanders

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