songs and arias

Reviews of classical albums by Jonas Kaufman, Konrad Jarnot and Michael Maniaci

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jonas Kaufmann: Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Wagner. Claudio Abbado conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Decca

Schubert: "Die Schöne Müllerin." Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano. Decca

Tenors are like hothouse flowers. But Jonas Kaufmann has held up well. Given the popularity of the 40-year-old German tenor, and the fragility of the breed, it's notable that Decca waited until this month to release his second aria album -- called "Sehnsucht" ("Longing") in Germany, where it came out last June -- in the United States. It coincides with the release of Kaufmann's account of Schubert's classic 20-song cycle "Die Schöne Müllerin" ("The Miller's Beautiful Daughter") -- an embarrassment of riches for Kaufmann's many fans.

Kaufmann is a beautifully expressive singer. The question is whether he'll stay in the right repertory for his fine-grained voice. The aria album (conducted with bravura by Claudio Abbado leading his Mahler Chamber Orchestra) runs the gamut from Mozart's Tamino (the lighter end of the tenor spectrum) to Beethoven's Florestan and Wagner's Parsifal (the heavier end).

Musically, Kaufmann has no problem with any of it (though the "Winterstürme" from Wagner's "Die Walküre" is a weak link; he sounds oddly uninvolved), but the recording raises questions about whether the heavier repertory -- to which he's increasingly tending -- is taxing his voice. His sound is exposed, naked, just this side of raw in the gradually crescendoing "Gott!" that opens Florestan's aria in "Fidelio" -- one of many examples that are emotionally communicative but technically worrying. Even in Tamino's arias, there's not a natural cushion to the sound, though Decca's recording engineers have done their best to provide one.

Yet Kaufmann's voice seems better suited to opera than to Schubert's songs. The "Schöne Müllerin" cycle is delivered with tremendous nuance, only sometimes crossing the border into self-consciousness. But the voice doesn't sound easy: It rings out with the same kind of effort Kaufmann puts into the opera repertory, without scaling down or lapsing into melting intimacy. Kaufmann appears to be a singer who doesn't change his approach from opera to song. For my money, despite Helmut Deutsch's fine accompaniment, this doesn't rival memories of some of the great "Schöne Müllerins" -- Wunderlich, Souzay -- that are still available.

-- Anne Midgette

Schubert: "Die Schöne Müllerin." Konrad Jarnot, baritone; Alexander Schmalcz, piano. Oehms

Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin" breathes the pure air of romanticism, from the humanization of nature to the intertwining of love and death. The song cycle ideally requires a voice that expresses passion intensely, but with fine control, so that Schubert's gorgeous melodic lines get their full due.

Konrad Jarnot is not perfectly suited for this music, although he improves as it veers from initial exuberance into darker sentiments. In the earlier songs, Jarnot is slightly breathy in his upper range, expressing emotion through an odd mixture of whispering and projection. Jarnot has difficulty connecting with the naivete of lines such as "O Bächlein meiner Liebe. And the climactic "Dein ist mein Herz" ("My heart is yours") is not as joyous as it can be.

But then, as things start to go wrong in the wandering poet's love for the miller's beautiful daughter, Jarnot improves, offering real tenderness in "Morgengruss," dark foreboding in "Pause" and strong anger in "Eifersucht und Stolz" ("Jealousy and pride"). By the last two songs, when the poet tells the brook of his plan to drown himself and then, afterward, the brook sings his body and unhappy soul to eternal peace, Jarnot has settled well into the comfortable portion of his range. He offers a mixture of sweetness, gentleness and peace, with the rocking motion of the conclusion, "Des Baches Wiegenlied," particularly well conveyed.

Pianist Alexander Schmalcz is exemplary throughout, his accompaniment moving seamlessly from bubbling happiness to intense anger to pervasive sadness.

The booklet includes Wilhelm Müller's words, even for the prologue and epilogue, which are not recorded -- but, alas for English speakers, only in German.

-- Mark J. Estren

Michael Maniaci: "Mozart Arias for Male Soprano." Martin Pearlman conducting Boston Baroque. Telarc

The last known castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. The few late-career recordings he made reveal an unearthly tone and upper-register power that hint at why castrated male sopranos held such popular sway over European opera houses during their heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries. If the biologically intact Michael Maniaci, on his new Telarc album, "Mozart Arias for Male Soprano," doesn't match Moreschi's uncannily feminine timbre, he comes closer than anyone since Russell Oberlin in the 1960s to suggesting a castrato-like comfort with male singing in the highest vocal range.

Throughout a selection of arias from "Idomeneo," "Lucio Silla" and "La Clemenza di Tito" -- composed by Mozart with specific castrato singers of his day in mind -- Maniaci sounds, essentially, like a very sturdy countertenor whose voice sits naturally closer to the soprano than to the mezzo spectrum. His carefully husbanded production isn't quite as open or freely expressive as one might hear from a lyric mezzo. But with Maniaci's warmly flickering vibrato, soprano-ish chest voice and extended upper range, his is a unique and exciting instrument. The tone he produces on soft, sustained notes is particularly ravishing. And in the "Exsultate, Jubilate," which closes the disc, he pops off vibrant, ringing soprano high notes that any countertenor could only despair at.

Under Martin Pearlman's baton, the period-instrument orchestra of Boston Baroque contributes sprightly, stylish work to the arias as well as to a pair of Mozart overtures. A must-hear for early-music lovers.

-- Joe Banno

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