Fiona Maddocks 

Jonas Kaufmann, Tristan und Isolde/CBSO/Nelsons; West-Eastern Divan Soloists – review

Exemplary vocal control is only part of the attraction as Birmingham thrills to Jonas Kaufmann, writes Fiona Maddocks
  
  

"These are momentous times, afflicting heart and mind," runs a turbulent line in one of the set of songs Richard Strauss gave his wife as a wedding present in 1894. As marital gifts go, it is not without prenuptial ambiguity. The composer no doubt suspected that he would be henpecked by his bride Pauline de Ahna, a soprano of robust character whose fetish for cleanliness – wielding her duster in other people's houses too if necessary – would now be recognised as a severe case of OCD. She was a trial and a scourge, but also a glorious inspiration until Strauss's death more than half a century later.

This particular song, "Ruhe, meine Seele!" (Rest my soul!), opens on a discord and swells into a tempestuous dark night of the soul before finding uneasy calm. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who attracted a capacity audience from far and wide for his Birmingham debut with the CBSO and conductor Andris Nelsons, poured his energies into this tiny psychodrama and delivered liquid gold – the only way, if hyperbolic, to describe the glistening, superlatively controlled, dark-hued tone which has made him an international superstar. It helps that he looks like John the Baptist on a good day, but I refer you to the picture above for further evidence.

Kaufmann's versatility is his hallmark. He is one of the few tenors who approaches Plácido Domingo in range and artistic curiosity. Unparalleled in German romantic repertoire – he sang Wagner's Lohengrin under Nelsons' baton in Bayreuth in 2010, which clinched their professional friendship – Kaufmann excels in Italian and French opera too. Simultaneously with this CBSO tour to Paris, Vienna and various cities in Germany, Kaufmann is busy brushing up his flamenco for Don José in Salzburg's new Carmen with Simon Rattle at the end of the month.

But Kaufmann is Munich-born like Strauss himself, and these Op 27 songs released in the singer a particularly joyful expressive ease. Originally scored for voice and piano, they retained a place in Strauss's heart. Near the end of his life, in 1948 aged 84, he produced an orchestral version. The rapturous "Cäcilie" is a simple outpouring of domestic bliss – you sense Pauline's presence in its talk of "cuddling and chatting", though no mention of mops. "Heimliche Aufforderung" (Secret Invitation), about private intimacy, and "Morgen" (Tomorrow) are more covert in their apparent ecstasy.

There could be a reason for mystery. The Scottish-German poet of both these, John Henry Mackay (1864-1933), was a well-known anarchist and homosexual whose writings were later burned by the Nazis. Strauss, so often accused of dubious and conservative politics, would certainly have known something of this when he chose to set these poems, even though Mackay's more contentious years around the boy-bars of Berlin, when he wrote a pederastic novel under the pseudonym Sagitta, were yet to come. Strauss did not always parade his liberal sympathies but his generous music surely proclaims them. An enthusiastic audience cheered Kaufmann, eliciting "Zueignung" as an encore.

Not everything was so convincing in Mahler's Kindertotenlieder – songs on the death of children. The subject matter is almost untouchable, not least since Mahler's own daughter died three years after he had written the cycle. Usually sung by a mezzo, Kaufmann gave what was (probably) the first UK performance of a version for high voice, published by Universal Edition and condoned by Mahler but rarely heard. The opening bars immediately triggered an aural shock, not least because the whole work has been transposed up a minor third.

This no doubt added difficulties for the prominent woodwind, whose instruments are less adaptable than strings to certain awkward keys. The expert CBSO players overcame all hurdles, yet despite moments of lucid, shattering beauty, a sense of uncertainty prevailed in singer and orchestra alike. By their nature these texts require an inward, introspective delivery, which Kaufmann gave. In their occasional brokenness, his incredible head-voice pianissimos reflected truthfully the sorrowful mood of Rückert's poems. The only major-key song, "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" (Often I think they have only stepped out), shone with terrible grief.

All told, this was a stormy programme, from the psychological tempests of Strauss and Mahler to the sea-tossed musical journey from the Suffolk coast to the English Channel of the rest of the concert. Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes opened the evening with salty rigour and a winningly elegiac viola solo (Christopher Yates). Debussy's La mer, which he completed in Eastbourne on a tryst with his mistress while engaged in his own force nine marital hurricane, ended the concert.

The CBSO's navigation round our coastline had started – metaphorically speaking – last weekend in the Irish Sea off Cornwall with a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde, Nelsons's first. Yet again this young Latvian proved himself among the most exciting and exploratory Wagnerians alive. Yes, that good. He takes immense risks, sometimes slowing the tempo to a near standstill then accelerating with a surge of alert, manic urgency. He taxes his players to the limits of breath or bow control, demanding extremes of volume or, far harder, near silence.

The CBSO, who could surely play the Prelude to Tristan in their sleep but never have the chance to play the entire score, responded with lustrous virtuosity, with special praise to the bass clarinet, cor anglais, trombones and harp. Many of the singers were new to their roles, including Lioba Braun (Ortrud in the CBSO and Nelsons's 2010 Lohengrin), a mezzo who sounded pale in soprano high notes but who compensated with the intelligence of her reading. Stephen Gould's herculean, brawny Tristan soared over the orchestra with barely a moment's falter: an achievement in this double-marathon vocal challenge. The rest of the cast was distinguished as well as distinctive: Christianne Stotijn, Brett Polegato, Matthew Best, Ben Johnson, Benedict Nelson and the unquenchable Men of the CBSO Chorus. In a work on this scale – 230 minutes long – momentary imperfections pass unnoticed if, as here, the chemistry works.

Tristan und Isolde had a cryptic link to the Kaufmann programme: both Strauss and Mahler conducted it in the opera house; both Britten and Debussy quoted the famous 'Tristan chord', satirically, in scores of their own: Albert Herring and the "Golliwog's Cakewalk" respectively. But Wagner's love-death masterpiece has wriggled into the psyche of most subsequent composers since its composition in 1859 – even the least likely, such as Messiaen. Entire academic treatises – let's not go there – have been written on the French Catholic composer's obsession, musical and mystical, with the medieval legend.

His Quartet for the End of Time (1940-41) has different concerns. Written when Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Silesia, this eight-movement work was the centrepiece of a concert (including Kodály, Saint-Saëns and Brahms) by the West-Eastern Divan Soloists, all members of the orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said in 1999. Guy Braunstein (violin), Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Zvi Plesser (cello) and Bishara Haroni (piano) captured precisely the quartet's mix of meditation, imprecation, apocalypse and prayer. As the Israeli violinist and the Syrian clarinettist sat opposite one another, weaving musical lines with perfect wizardry, this cry for peace could scarcely have sounded more noble.

 

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