Entrancing Virtuosity, Wonderful Music Making and Supreme Artistry from Damrau, Kaufmann and Deutsch

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wolf: Diana Damrau (soprano), Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano), Barbican Hall, London, 16.2.2018. (JPr)

Diana Damrau, Jonas Kaufmann & Helmut Deutsch (piano) (c) Mark Allan/Barbican

WolfItalienisches Liederbuch (Italian Songbook)

It was fitting that the one encore at the end of this captivating joint recital – part of a 12-city European tour – by Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann was Schumann’s delightful duet ‘Unterm Fenster’. Schumann – whose songs inspired Hugo Wolf – wrote several of his lieder in 1840, the year when he married Clara, and Wolf also composed in bursts of activity. Indeed he wrote to someone once: ‘I feel ominous signs of composition in me, and await an explosion any minute.’ Sadly, his life also mirrored Schumann’s in other unfortunate ways; they both suffered from depression and died from syphilis in an asylum.

His idol Richard Wagner advised Wolf to concentrate on composing larger-scale works but he had a talent for intense and very theatrical song miniatures. These seem to fuse Wagnerian harmonies with scene painting that is often Schumannesque. Wolf’s health may well have suffered because of his frustration over a sense of failure because he was unable to write works of Wagnerian scale, nevertheless there is nothing small in spirit about Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch. This intriguing collection of 46 songs was produced in two typically Wolfian feverish bursts of energy in the 1890s. The words he set to music were translations by Paul Heyse of anonymous love poetry from Tuscany and Venice. Wolf vividly illustrates the texts while giving equal weight to words and music, voice and piano.

These vignettes are not a song cycle in the familiar sense. Apparently the Italienisches Liederbuch must start with its reflection of how even small things can delight us (the first line of ‘Auch kleine Dinge’) and have a rousing conclusion with the humorous ‘Ich hab’ in Penna einen Liebsten wohnen’ (described in the programme by Richard Wigmore as ‘a feminine riposte to Leporello’s Catalogue Aria in Don Giovanni). Otherwise singers can choose the order they are sung in and I suspect in performance this can make a significant difference. Wolf had experienced many aspects of love and despair in his eventful short life and maybe the songs might be approached as a musical biography. Damrau, Kaufmann, and their excellent pianist Helmut Deutsch, grouped them in four almost equal sections: we start with the lovers flirting and getting along well with each other; then quarrelling and making peace; followed by a parting of the ways and reconciliation; and finally, the comfort and security of mature love.

This was not a perfect dramatic narrative for the 46 songs – that would not be possible – but the ‘she says to him, he says to her’ (as Richard Wigmore described it) made for an event of a very special kind, as both singers vividly enacted the ‘love life’ of a romantic couple. Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann stood together and sang – mostly alternately – from memory to their sold-out audience, with only a couple of short pauses and one break for the interval. Both were in excellent voice and in perfect accord with their pianist. They appreciated what each other was singing and there were sparks of affection and clear evidence of gentle rivalry from each other, as they covered Wolf’s gamut of emotions from amorous hyperbole to the petulant derision of unfaithful – and downright inadequate at times – lovers.

Although Damrau could be coquettish (‘Man sagt mir, deine Mutter woll’ as nicht’), tender ‘Ihr jungen Leute’, sobbing (‘Mir ward gesagt’) or gossipy (’Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen’) she was particularly suited by all the songs revealing a more temperamental side to her character’s personality. For me one of her highlights was Wolf’s Wagnerian homage and her Ortrud-like singing of ‘Verschling’ der Abrund’. She played all her ‘roles’ well and was as effective and engaged when listening to Kaufmann as when she was singing herself.

Kaufmann was at his very best. He was a charismatic and charming partner to Damrau even if he does not now have as wide a range of tonal shades at his disposal as she does. Their ‘love duel’ over the 46 songs – few longer than a couple of minutes – was engrossing because of the obvious chemistry between these two great artists. He sang more as a baritone than a tenor and he began strongly in declamatory style with ‘Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt enstund’ and got better and better and used what he has – musicality, a seamless legato, brawny dark tones and a floating head voice – to fine effect in several of his songs. There was religious fervour and a powerful climax to ‘Dass doch gemalt all deine Reize wären’, ‘Wie viele Zeit verlor ich, dich zu lieben!’ lacked nothing in roguish charm, and a highlight was the impassioned lyricism he brought to ‘Benedeit die sel’ge Mutter’, where for the only time in what we heard, the first two stanzas are repeated.

Deutsch’s brilliance was understated but cannot be ignored. The gorgeous rocking barcarole of ‘Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen’ was perfectly realised, and I doubt there would ever be a wittier rendition of the stuttering violinist of ‘Wie lange schon war immer mein Verlangen’. Deutsch was totally responsive to his singers’ emotional world and was able to uncover every impulsive and expressive nuance in Wolf’s music. This was entrancing virtuosity in the service of wonderful music making and supreme artistry.

Jim Pritchard

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