/Jonas Kaufmann – Four Last Songs, Barbican (2018)
Jonas Kaufmann & Jochen Rieder Photo by Peter ‏(Twitter) @oysterman55

Jonas Kaufmann – Four Last Songs, Barbican (2018)

This is one of those rare occasions where I can’t let fandom win. Out of the many times I’ve seen Jonas Kaufmann perform on stage (be it at the Royal Albert Hall, Royal Opera, or Barbican), this was probably the most disappointing performance I had ever seen. The Barbican concert, to perform Strauss lieder with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under maestro Jochen Rieder, was first meant to happen on February 2017. But based on recommendations from Kaufmann’s vocal coach, he was advised to cancel the event altogether.

The ‘let’s take two’ concert [May 19, 2018] began with the Schauspiel Overture by Korngold. Given that it was my first time hearing the piece the BBC Orchestra introduced the concert superbly with a moving performance from the strings and the woodwind instruments. Immediately after, Rieder skilfully led the audience into Strauss’s second interlude from his 1924 opera Intermezzo with the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing luminously, with solid moments of climax. Elgar’s overture to In the South was the penultimate piece, which (in my opinion) was my least favourite, however, it was a great showpiece for the programme overall; it exhibited the expertise and musical prowess of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

One of the main reasons I enjoy Kaufmann’s performances are because of his sensitive and perceptive reading of music. Whether it’s performing the role of a jealous captain (Otello), a murderous French soldier (Jose) or capturing the feelings of Lieder, he does it masterfully. Yet his voice didn’t seem to have the same nuance or resonance as a soprano singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs. I’ve listened to recordings by sopranos Nina Stemme and Jessye Norman and, as much as it is best practice to not compare I couldn’t help myself but, think Kaufmann’s voice wasn’t as suitable.

At first, I didn’t want to believe that Kaufmann’s voice wasn’t compatible with Strauss’s Four Last Songs. I challenged myself and asked whether my disappointment was down to not knowing much about the other pieces, besides Strauss’s Four Last Songs. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this was far from the case. For a concert that started at 7.30pm and finished just before 10 pm (with a 20-minute interval), only a small part was dedicated to the actual title of the concert. As a fan of the tenor’s voice, this evening was uneven. Several theories were going through my head, including:

1) The poor acoustics of the Barbican’s main hall.
2) Strauss writing the piece for the soprano voice. Perhaps those heartfelt notes can only work for that type of voice. The evening proved (to me) that Kaufmann’s voice couldn’t reach the same delicacy or emotion. That said, he still gave a dedicated performance.
3) In some parts, I simply couldn’t hear Kaufmann’s voice, clearly enough. I sat in the Balcony, which is high above the main stage, yet this couldn’t be the reason I couldn’t hear him properly. It didn’t make sense as I recently saw him with Diana Damrau (click here for my review), performing together, from the Balcony and didn’t experience the same sound issues.
4) The BBC Symphony Orchestra drowned out Kaufmann’s voice. Sometimes I felt as if the orchestra was louder than Kaufmann – almost inaudible.

I just wasn’t sure. The night, overall, wasn’t as I thought it would be when I booked my ticket.

Nonetheless it was still a worthwhile experience, waiting this long to see Jonas perform at the Barbican again. The BBC Symphony Orchestra did a tremendous job performing Four Last Songs. It was loud and earthy. I certainly felt that they had succeeded in bringing the autumn temperament of ‘September’ closer to the middle of May. Who knows. It might have been a different experience had it been an intimate space with a smaller orchestra.

For more information about events at the Barbican, please click here.

[Header Photo: Jonas Kaufmann & Jochen Rieder Photo by Peter ‏(Twitter) @oysterman55.]

(I purchased my ticket for the show.)