Jonas Kaufmann brings rare vocal artistry to Arsht Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann performed a vocal recital at the Arsht Center Thursday night. Photo: Gregor Hohenberg

Some nostalgic vocal aficionados claim that the great voices of the past can never be equaled and the level of vocalism has declined over the decades. In fact, there have been exceptional singers in every era that can hold their own with the legacy of storied voices from previous generations. Far rarer are singers who combine superb instruments with refined and elevated vocal artistry.

Jonas Kaufmann is one of that small group. On Thursday night, classical music returned to Miami’s Arsht Center with an outstanding recital by the German tenor and Helmut Deutsch, one of the most acclaimed lieder accompanists, at the keyboard.

To his immense credit, Kaufmann did not play down to the sizable audience which greeted him with a prolonged ovation at his first appearance in this South Florida debut. This was not the usual Miami program of popular operatic arias. Rather, Kaufmann offered a serious lieder recital, combining familiar chestnuts of the art song repertoire with some wonderful rarities. 

The one-page program instructed the audience to withhold applause until the end of the concert’s first part and its conclusion. Yet many listeners insisted on clapping after each selection, breaking the spell Kaufmann was trying to create. Still one could hardly blame them for this premature enthusiasm. One could barely hear a cough or a pin drop while Kaufmann was singing, the attendees hanging on his every note. If only they could have controlled themselves and respected the program’s larger arc.

Kaufmann explained at the outset that this program was based on two recording projects that he devised with Deutsch. The initial half of the 90-minute concert was devoted to the lieder of Franz Liszt. While the Hungarian composer-pianist’s keyboard and orchestral scores are well known and often played, his songs are his least performed offerings. 

Nine of these vignettes proved to be real discoveries. Unlike Liszt’s more familiar compositions, flash and bombast are largely absent from these songs. Melodically and harmonically, these are some of his most imaginative creations. Kaufmann deserves immense credit for exploring this oeuvre.

He demonstrated the sheer power of his vocal compass in “Vergiftet sind meine Lieder,” the first of two contrasting Heine settings. “Im Rhom, im schönen Strone” demonstrated Kaufmann’s almost baritonal timbre. 

Yet his high range is bereft of audible strain or pressure and his soft tones emerged melting and lovely. Liszt’s two settings of Goethe’s “Freudvoll und leidvoll” ranged from muscular, heldentenor territory, to lyrical, with the tenor’s remarkable breath control coming to the fore.

The melody of Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 encompasses “O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst.” Kaufmann’s subtle coloring and astutely calibrated dynamics proved memorable, an example of his ability to make the familiar seem newly recharged. Deutsch’s crystalline evocation of the piano line was eloquent. Kaufmann related Goethe’s tale of “Es war ein König in Thule” with the intimacy and ring of a folk artist. His suave dark sound and vaulting top tones engulfed the hall in “Ihr Glocken von Marling.”

The opening keyboard bars of “Die drei Zigeuner” quote the main theme of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and the accompanying lines suggest the Hungarian rhapsodies. Deutsch gave every indication that he was equal to that repertoire and splendidly supported Kaufmann’s declamatory narrative. Concluding with Liszt’s version of Heine’s “Die Loreley,” Kaufmann’s beauty of tone and nuanced gradations of forte and softness drew a standing ovation.

After a short pause, Kaufmann and Deutsch returned for a mixture of “art song’s greatest hits” and some unfamiliar gems. 

The tenor’s renditions of the best known material fully revealed his supple artistry, avoiding volume and operatic histrionics in favor of expressive directness. This was especially evident in Schubert’ s “Wanderers Nachtlied,” Brahms’  “Wiegenlied,” Dvořák’s “Als die alte Mutter” (Songs my Mother Taught Me) and Tchaikovsky’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (None but the Lonely Heart). His artful phrasing and attention to the most minute details reclaimed these melodic treasures from routine repetitions in popular culture.

Richard Strauss’s “Zweignung” was appropriately grand in the climaxes but admirably restrained. Switching vocal gears, he evinced a light touch in Schubert’s “Die Mesensohn” and the idiomatic classicism of Mozart’s “Das Veilchen.” Alois Melchair’s setting for voice of the main theme of Chopin’s Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3 was warmly romantic.

Among less standard terrain, “Still wie die Nacht” by Carl Bohm was a gorgeous romance, sung in full voice. Schumann’s “Widmung” came across as a reverie in whispered tones. The spare thematic paths and moody aura of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s “Selige Stunde” were projected with deep feeling for this underrated composer’s uniquely personal romantic idiom. 

“Verborgenheit” by Hugo Wolf, one of the greatest of lieder composers, was a panorama of incisive emotional turmoil.  From Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” took on patrician sadness with Kaufmann and Deutsch’s sense of haunting finality. The quiet ending was stunning in effect and a fine conclusion to a great evening of song.

The Arsht Center’s classical series continues 8 p.m. February 16, 2022 with violinist-director Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields playing Dvořák’s Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Jonas Kaufmann brings rare vocal artistry to Arsht Center”

  1. Posted Oct 15, 2021 at 4:04 pm by linda sparks

    Love your review! I’ve read the Carnegie and Ann Arbor ones and they all simply make me so envious of you who have been lucky enough to hear these two artists in person. You helped me listen again to all those amazing songs. (I have the recent Liszt CD0. thanks.

  2. Posted Oct 15, 2021 at 8:27 pm by maggie rotter

    Thank you for this detailed and appreciative review. I hope the folks in Miami realize what a rare opportunity this was.

  3. Posted Oct 16, 2021 at 4:15 pm by D.S.Sard

    Thank you for the excellent detailed review of what was one of the outstanding recitals of my lifetime by these two impeccable artists.

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Fri Oct 15, 2021
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