Jonas Kaufmann confounds our expectations on so many levels. His is a lyric tenor with a dark, grainy, dramatic core enabling a disarmingly wide range of French, Italian, and German repertoire in all its sensitivities. In his native German, the rarefied world of Schubert lieder marries the art of a terrific actor to the privacy of intuitive storytelling. We do not know to what extent the apprentice miller-lad’s obsession with Die schöne Müllerin is all in his imagination, but we do know where it tragically leads.
Not that Kaufmann signposts the poor lad’s untimely end. On the contrary, as pianist Helmut Deutsch’s mill wheel starts churning Kaufmann presents us with a wide-eyed, likely lad, the lightly inflected staccato rhythms and graceful turns all suggestive of youth and youthfulness. The maiden’s sweet “goodnight” in Am Feierabend (“When Work is Over”) takes on the tone and countenance of her voice resonating high in his own. And when the fateful question is asked – will it be “yes” or “no” – the tenderness of his expectation in Der Neugierige (“The Inquisitive One”) and the raptness of the delivery show just how much is riding on the answer.
Kaufmann’s fine-tuning of text, his sensitive, searching way with subtext, tells us so much about the growing pains we all experience at some time or other, to say nothing of the private conversations we all have with ourselves. Does the boy really address the maiden in “Morning Greeting” or is this merely a hopeful rehearsal? Kaufmann let’s us decide. Defiance and determination are then given full rein and the vivid spectre of a rival – Der jäger (“The Hunter”) – tramples his dreams to dust in the vivid and brutal articulation of the galloping text.
Kaufmann’s tenor has many colours but it was the many different kinds of quiet – and at one point in the centre of Trockne Blumen (“Withered Flowers”) aching, empty, silence – that really took the heartache to another level here. The numbing farewells of the final songs reached a heartstoppingly beautiful reading of the last, Des Baches Wiegenlied (“The Brook’s Lullaby”), where the final stanza brought us to the most transcendent pianissimo as if his spirit were literally evaporating to some higher plain. Special.