In Memoriam Sir Peter Jonas – an April Monday Concert of the Bavarian State Opera 

GermanyGermany Fourth Concert – In Memoriam Sir Peter Jonas: Elsa Benoit (soprano), Donald Wages (piano), Münchner Klavier Trio, Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano), Live streaming from the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, on 27.4.2020. (MMB)

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) & Helmut Deutsch (piano) (c) Bayerische Staatsoper

Handel – ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’

Mozart – Piano Quartet E flat major K.493

Schumann – Dichterliebe Op.48

The Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) in Munich – like all opera houses around the world – has been forced to close and cancel all their performances for the present season of 2019-20. As Germany went on lockdown before the UK, the USA and some European countries, Munich was one of the first opera houses to shut its doors but it was also one of the first that announced their determination in continuing to perform online.

Like most places they have dug up their archives and have been streaming some of their productions of opera and ballet. These are available for fourteen days as free video on demand on their website under the heading STAATSOPER.TV (click here) but they have gone one step further. The opera house has had a long practice of performing a concert every Monday evening with members of their orchestra and of their opera and ballet ensembles, occasionally also famous artists, with inexpensive ticket prices. So, they decided that besides the streaming of previous productions, they wanted to continue the tradition of the Monday concert. Therefore, they now offer a truly live concert every Monday evening (20.15 hrs CET or 19.15 hrs BST). They are called Montagskonzerte or Monday Concerts and each lasts about an hour or a little over an hour. The concerts are streamed live and free from the stage of the State Opera in Munich. The programmes consist of Lieder, solo instrumentalists, chamber music and dance. Musicians of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, dancers of the Bayerisches Staatsballett, and artists closely associated with the house perform live on stage but to an empty auditorium. Among them there are such celebrated names as, for example, violinist Julia Fischer, baritone Christian Gerhaher or tenor Jonas Kaufmann to name but a few.

I have been unable to watch all of them but when I can I make a note on my diary in order not to miss them. Of the various I have watched so far – and they were all of very high quality – one of my favourites and most memorable was the fourth, shown on Monday, 27 April. It was a tribute concert to the memory of Sir Peter Jonas, the opera house’s general director for many years (1993-2006) and who died in Munich on 22 April. The concert began with French soprano Elsa Benoit (who is a member of the Bavarian State Opera Ensemble) singing Handel’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’, accompanied on the piano by Donald Wages. The piece was directly dedicated to Sir Peter Jonas and Benoit’s singing was heartfelt. She has a beautiful, warm soprano tone. Her phrasing is elegant, and her enunciation refined. Handel’s music is poignant, and Benoit’s interpretation was very moving, almost heart-breaking at times, lovingly supported on the piano by Wages.

Elsa Benoit was followed by the Münchner Klaviertrio in Mozart’s Piano Quartet E flat major K.493. The trio is formed of Michael Arlt on the violin; Gerhard Zank on the cello and Donald Sulzen on the piano. They were joined by Tilo Widenmeyer on the viola. Their performance was a spirited, vivid and immensely enjoyable one. Mozart’s music was very finely and charmingly executed by all, notably Arlt and Zank – violin and cello respectively.

And then we had the high point and the real treat of the evening: Jonas Kaufmann, supported by his long-time accompanist and teacher Helmut Deutsch on the piano, and singing the exquisitely beautiful Dichterliebe Op.48 by Robert Schumann. Kaufmann is a native of the city of Munich and, perhaps because of it, a darling of the audiences there, with a special connection to the opera house. Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) is Schumann’s best known and most celebrated song cycle. Composed in 1840 it consists of sixteen songs to poems from Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder. Schumann’s music mirrors the beauty, elegance and simplicity of Heine’s poetic language. Kaufmann is better known for his dramatic or heroic opera roles where his sensational voice really comes into its own, however, he also enjoys and is a great interpreter of Lieder. Kaufmann’s tenor voice is singular – powerful, warm, capable of high notes but with an unusual baritone edge that gives it a darker tone. I have seen and heard him in many opera roles where almost without exception he excelled. Additional to his remarkable voice, Jonas Kaufmann has an outstanding technique and is a convincing actor. His diminuendos are the stuff of legend and as striking as his crescendos. His enunciation is very clear, and he masters the pronunciation of all the languages he sings in, as if he were a native.

Years ago, in March 2012, I had the privilege of interviewing him (click here). One of the questions I asked him was about Lieder and he said, ‘Without wanting to diminish the worth of great opera singing, I think that Lieder singing is the queen of all the singing genres!’. The reason why he said this, he went on to add, is because among other things, in Lieder the singer is more exposed – as he/she is alone with the pianist – and when one does a song cycle it is not one story like in opera but several little stories that continuously change in mood, style, language and expression. It is certainly very demanding but watching him perform Dichterliebe you would be forgiven for thinking it is actually easy. Kaufmann sang beautifully and with feeling. The performance was heartfelt, exquisitely balanced between technique, musicality, and dramatic interpretation. It was also expressive, elegant, at times graceful and simply beautiful from beginning to end. When he finished and thanked us (the viewers online) it felt almost disheartening that we couldn’t show him how much we had appreciated and loved his performance. And he obviously misses the applause. At the very end, as he thought he was no longer on air, he turned to Helmut Deutsch (the pianist), shook his head and said, ‘music without the audience is not the same’. Yes, he is right but in these troubled times streaming, especially a live streamed performance, is a real treat and I for one was grateful that Jonas Kaufmann agreed to appear.

I enjoyed this tribute concert to Sir Peter Jonas very much and Kaufmann’s rendition of Schumann’s Dichterliebe in particular. With Helmut Deutsch at the piano, he has previously recorded Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. I hope he will also eventually record Dichterliebe and that, once life has returned to at least some sense of normality, we will be able to delight and applaud in person one of his magnificent performances.

Margarida Mota-Bull

For more about BSO live streams click here.

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