Jonas Kaufman is no supertenor. There is far more to him than manly good looks, honeyed tones and an ability to soar thrillingly into the stratosphere. He has all those, and much else, all based on an intellectual integrity which puts music before personality.
I’m not sure if everyone in Wednesday’s packed Symphony Hall was alert to Kaufman’s own special gifts (some were there probably just for the big-name occasion), but the discerning among us were able to find much to savour in his highly-contrasted performances of orchestral songs by Mahler and Strauss.
Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, a rarity for tenors, drew disembodied, baritonal timbres from Kaufman, only rarely flowering into tenorial fulsomeness at phrases of the deepest exaltation in these ‘Songs on the Death of Children’; the remarkable acoustic permits such withdrawn tones even when accompanied by a large orchestra (though scoring often has the sparsity of chamber music).
Under Andris Nelsons, with whom Kaufman made his Bayreuth debut in Lohengrin in 2010, the CBSO played with a brittle refinement, burgeoning into consolation where necessary.
Mainly joyous songs by Richard Strauss found Kaufman in more expansive mode, indeed Wagnerian at times, yet his silence whilst almost absently listening to Laurence Jackson’s and Robert Johnston’s exquisite violin and harp duet at the beginning of Morgen, eventually letting us into his thoughts, was as eloquent as anything.
Framing Kaufmann’s contributions were two maritime works, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia combining excitement with an eerie sense of atmosphere (the complete Peter Grimes is worth considering), and Debussy’s La Mer evanescent, dancing and whitehorse-flecked in Nelsons’ deft hands and with Marie-Christine Zupancic’s important flute contributions – and fortunately Nelsons didn’t use the excised little trumpet fanfares which some conductors like to restore near the end of the finale.