Nelsons and Kaufmann – A Partnership to Relish

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Mahler, Strauss & Debussy: Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7.3.2012 (GR) 

Britten: Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Strauss: Five Songs
Debussy: La Mer

[Be sure to read our current interview with Jonas Kaufmann]

The heading for this CBSO concert was ‘Andris Nelsons and Jonas Kaufmann’, and both artists proved that it was, and is, a partnership to be reckoned with. The programme was an appetiser for a thirteen-week tour of Europe by Nelsons, the CBSO and various guest artists (of which Kaufmann is one) taking in Manchester, Paris, Munich and Vienna ( Like the West Midlands audience on March 7th 2012 in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Europe has a treat in store.

This was Kaufmann’s first visit to Birmingham, reuniting his collaboration with Nelsons, begun so successfully with Lohengrin at the 2010 Bayreuth Festival. Hopefully it will not be his last, since there is no tenor in the world higher up the wish list of opera house casting directors, never mind recital organisers.

On this occasion the balanced programme gave equal prominence to both orchestra and soloist and it was the CBSO that opened proceedings with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes & Passacaglia from Peter Grimes. Nelsons conducting Britten was a new experience for me (it will be interesting to see what he makes of the impending performance of the War Requiem at Coventry as part of the Cathedral’s Golden Jubilee celebrations on May 30th). Britten was an outstanding creator of musical images and Nelsons and the CBSO painted many vivid pictures of a bleak East Anglian coast in my mind. In addition to an impression of the first light of day rippling over the North Sea waves, my overriding sensation of Dawn was of the Borough community – fishermen, cold and wet, at the start of yet another day’s hard graft. Sunday Morning contrasted those who were dutifully off to save their souls and others for whom there could be no day of rest. The shafts of light darting through the clouds were graphically portrayed in Moonlight, a heaviness and building of tension that reflected the mood of protagonist Grimes. The Passacaglia further concentrated my focus on this troubled character as the solo viola of Christopher Yates gave sensitive voice to the apprentice. The violent and unexpected turns of Britten’s Storm were galvanised by Nelsons using the full forces of the CBSO; I recalled Grimes’ line What harbour shelters peace?

Mahler insisted that the five songs of his Kindertotenlieder should be performed in complete form and in the order specified. It seems he did not insist on which voice type should be used. If a tenor was your choice rather than the more conventional mezzo or baritone, then Kaufmann might seem the ideal choice. But comparisons were inevitable and whilst Kaufmann readily accommodated the upward transposition, the end result I found was not entirely convincing. A tenor noted for his versatility, this was perhaps a bridge too far. Nevertheless his diction of the Friedrich Rückert verse was immaculate and at times I liked the emphasis he placed on certain key words in the text. For example in the first song Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn, his geschah nur mir allein communicated the sheer loneliness of grief, Rückert’s character longing for the sun to dispel the darkness of an interminable night.

Amid some typical Mahlerian tones from the CBSO, I thought the intensity that lies beneath the lines of Nun she’ ich wohl was not quite there. Kaufmann gave it his utmost concentration, but this did not seem to equate to the fixation upon ‘the eyes of the departed child’ the song demanded. Likewise, Wenn dein Mütterlein (my favourite among the Kindertotenlieder cycle) lacked the tingle-factor I was looking for.

Such was the effect of the loss of his own children on Rückert, the German poet wrote 428 poems on the subject; the fourth of Mahler’s five, Oft denk’ ich came next. Kaufmann did find a contrast between its moments of despondency and hope, a emblematic Mahlerian undercurrent of happiness tinged with darkness, but of the five it is this one I feel is best suited to a mezzo. In the final In diesem Wetter, Mahler draws parallels between nature and parenthood. The apprehension in the music is vaguely prophetic of events that would befall the composer, going on soon after to lose a child himself. And at last Kaufmann brought a lump to my throat with Von Gottes Hand bedecket as he, Nelsons and the CBSO extracted all the emotion scored into those final bars.

I’m not sure what Kaufmann had in the interval but his enthusiasm for the Strauss songs (Op 27 1-4 plus Op 32 No 1) in the second half immediately spread around the Symphony Hall. The overall tone he had exacted on the Mahler was completely transformed – and not just I feel due to nature of the songs. I’m sure all the ladies in the auditorium were dreaming of one of those Strauss love letters being sent to them from such a heart-throb as Kaufmann. The opening Auf of Heimliche Aufforderung was sung with gusto but without loss of tonal quality; the crescendo and body language on Rose Pracht pointed to a lover in love with life, looking towards the longed-for night. Ruhe, meine Seele invoked some of the Mahler moods of the first half, but now the audience empathised with Kaufmann’s plea to rest his troubled soul. There was an intimacy to his Ich trage meine Minne, an effortless delivery of Karl Friedrich Henckell’s lines; one of these ‘….makes me joyful everyday’ in Rebecca Cauthen’s translation described Kaufmann’s performance rather well. If it were possible the fourth song Morgen raised the bar even higher. So popular in Lieder repertoire, I thought Strauss’ 1897 orchestration, delicately controlled by Nelsons and the CBSO, together with a gut-wrenching solo from leader Laurence Jackson, enhanced the piece greatly; add a tenor of Kaufmann’s class and the mix was irresistible – no wonder there was a burst of premature applause. Cäcilie brought Kaufmann’s programme schedule to a close, once more playing the earnest lover with passion and conviction, climaxing on Zu seligen Höhn – a blessed height indeed! The packed Symphony Hall bayed for more and Kaufmann briefly obliged with another Strauss song, Zueignung.

With the departure of Kaufmann, the pulsations of the evening might have been expected to drop, but certainly not. With Debussy and La Mer, the programme was brought full circle back to the sea; and what a vibrant voyage Nelsons and the CBSO gave us. Debussy had begun composing the piece in Bichain, Burgundy, about as far from the sea as you can get in France. So playing it in the UK’s equivalent, Birmingham was apt; the Symphony Hall’s superb acoustics showed off the varieties of nuance and colour in Debussy’s score to best advantage. Beneath the rippling texture of the strings and the pentatonic wave patterns of the woodwind in De l’aube a midi sur la mer, the sheer immensity of the sea and the danger lurking in its depths came across. The complexity and fluctuating tonalities written into Jeux de vagues portrayed the ever-changing patterns of the waves. The ferocity and power of the sea depicted in Dialogue du vent et de la mer produced an invigorating conclusion. There were some admiral performances from the CBSO players, particularly the cellos and the percussion section, while Martin Frutiger on cor anglais was outstanding. But it was the man at the helm, the modest Andris Nelsons, who deserved the most applause.

Geoff Read