Friday, January 18, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann & Helmut Deutsch: Die schöne Müllerin

Unlike the miller of Schubert's cycle, I asked no one what path I should take before heading to Princeton to hear Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch perform Die schöne Müllerin. The sold-out recital proved well worth the journey. In this interpretation of the cycle, Kaufmann focused on the dark side of the piece's Romanticism: the miller's refusal to compromise, to accept human frailty, to doubt signs of destiny. Helmut Deutsch's intelligent, incisive handling of the piano part complemented Kaufmann's approach beautifully, echoing the miller's open-hearted optimism, or providing its disturbing counterpoise in the voice of the wise, remorseless stream.

In this reading of the cycle, optimism met its death early. The poetically-inclined young man enchanted with the dancing of the stones, half in love with the rushing water, is eager to gather more material for his own story, and far too intoxicated with each experience to imagine their consequences. But as early as the moment when he substitutes the singing of nixies for the rushing of mill-wheels, the perils of that conflation are hinted at. In "Danksagung an den Bach," the anguish with which Kaufmann asked, finally, "...Oder hast mich berückt?" and the haste with which he returned to the only question he is willing to contemplate, "Ob sie dich geschickt?" were similarly ominous. Impatience and frustration built through the next songs, with the suppressed despair of "Der Neugierige" giving way to the frenetic "Ungeduld." Kaufmann's "Morgengruß" captured more sexual, knowing teasing than I had previously heard or imagined in the aubade, and it worked brilliantly. It was this slightly fey, feverishly determined courtship, then, that determined the mood of the subsequent songs, even as the miller himself became consumed by it. Deutsch's nuanced dynamics and phrasing contributed significantly to the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere.

The pause, then, is one of exhaustion. The miller can see no future; brief paralysis is the closest he will come to finding respite. The bee hums against the strings of the lute, and the yearning in "Ist es der Nachklang meiner Liebespein?" is, if anything, less bleak than the question of what new songs this could form the prelude. "Mit dem grünen Lautenbande" was filled with bitter knowledge (or at least presentiment) of the transience of love, even as the miller ironically praises its permanence. Savagery from the piano underscored "Der Jäger," which, although explosive, was yet less terrifying than the unbalanced fury of "Eifersucht und Stoltz." "Die liebe Farbe" and "Die böse Farbe" were similarly haunted by anger, an annihilating force transferred from the self to the beloved, for whom he imagines such a nightmarish farewell. In "Trock'ne Blumen" this anger found its equilibrium and its climax. The expected bewilderment and grief had no place here; the miller is dry-eyed as he contemplates the spectacle of his own dead love. Despite the words of ostensible hope at the song's conclusion--"Der Lenz wird kommen"--this is all too clearly a cycle from which the miller feels himself cut off. The cry "Der Mai ist g'kommen!" is made by one who knows he cannot see the other side of winter. Both Deutsch and Kaufmann made the Wiegenlied chilling, a cruel indulgence in the Romantic imagery by which the miller has lived and died. The loyalty of the brook is as false as any other; but it knows what promises to make. Rather than a gleam of redemption, the final description--"Und der Himmel da oben, wie ist er so weit!" held the finality of Werther's conclusion: this is a world which has lost its faith in divine revelation.

In response to prolonged and vociferous applause, Kaufmann gave "Der Jüngling an der Quelle" as encore. Here as elsewhere he savored the text, as the lovesick youth seemed almost to savor his own sorrow. Letting the last fond sigh of "Luise!" taper sweetly to pianissimo was a demonstration of mastery perhaps superfluous, but deeply appreciated.


  1. I can't hear the Wiegenlied at the end without tearing up. Such a sad, haunting lullaby. Nice, too, that you got "Der Jungling" as an encore: when he sang it here, he made it sound so sexy that I'm surprised no one threw their panties at him. If it had been any other audience... ;)

  2. So glad you got to see/hear Jonas and Helmut working together. I think it is one of the most precious and brilliant musical partnerships on the planet. In his 'Meinen die wirklich mich' autobiog Jonas describes how Helmut encouraged him to sing lieder with the same passion and variety as he was singing opera (then still a student). Helmut is a real mentor and seems to totally understand Jonas and his voice, as well as being a brilliant pianist. I saw them at a Liederabend in Graz last year - unforgettable. I so wish I had the pic of them hugging each other during the applause and beaming out at the audience!

    We are relying on you for a note by note and gesture by gesture review of Parsifal - hope you have a good seat!

  3. Hi Lucy, Thanks for sharing your impressions of JK's program. It makes me wish even more that I'd ditched work and made the pilgrimage to Princeton. At least I've talked my Dad into going with me to see Lohengrin in a local cinema in February.

  4. @Christie It was more irony-laced eulogy than lullaby here...! I suspect that Berlin might have gotten a more indulgent reading of "Der Juengling," although the contrast of the quiet, tender sensuality with what had gone before was striking.

    @villagediva I'm glad you've also gotten to experience the results of what does indeed seem a very successful personal and professional relationship. I do plan to review Parsifal, though I suspect a note by note review would be beyond mortal powers.

    @Rob Ah... many's the "unmissable" recital I've missed for the sake of work. Deep is my sympathy. Hope you (and your dad!) enjoy Lohengrin.


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