Priceless: Jonas Kaufmann Recital in Princeton NJ

  • About 900 miles round trip

  • Drive 900 miles round trip
  • tolls and gas
  • take 3 vacation days
  • ask friends to put us up and feed us
  • 65 minutes of music = Priceless!

On February 16, my friend Susan Martin and I packed our bags into my car and headed north on I-95 . We had a day-long drive ahead of us, but the goal was clear: Jonas Kaufmann was giving a lieder recital at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, on Thursday evening. Fueled by coffee, chicken biscuits, and artisan donuts (we live in a foodie town), we had an easy drive despite rain for most of the journey.

We were greeted by a giant lighted sign saying “WELCOME TO NEW JERSEY” at the last toll stop and were warmly welcomed by friends in Hamilton Township NJ, who put us up for the night, fed us, and on Thursday morning even took us over the route we’d need to follow to get to the McCarter Theatre. That was the extent of our sightseeing 😉 but we did see some of Hamilton Township. And had tasty home-cooked roast beef sandwiches at Fred & Pete’s Deli for lunch!

We set out for the 7:30 recital at 6:30 because a grand tweet-up was on the agenda: @singingscholar, @zerbinettasblog, @msoperageek, @perfectpitchmlb, Susan (@samlett), and I (@ivisbohlen, boringly) were going to finally meet in person rather than online.

As we approached the theater, unlike during our calm reconnoiter that morning, there was a huge line of cars creeping up the hill—and time was getting shorter and shorter! I spotted a sign for valet parking and decided it was an answer to prayer. So we rushed into the lobby at about 7pm and had a great time chatting. Yes, everyone is just as interesting as they ‘tweet’! It was so much fun that I hope we can meet up again in New York.

The Golden Ticket

The Golden Ticket

We had excellent seats in the center of the second row of the balcony. McCarter Theatre has 1,100 seats, much smaller than the Met (about 3,800), where I’d seen Jonas Kaufmann’s previous New York area lieder recital, and even smaller than our own Memorial Auditorium at UNC (1,434 seats). The program this time was Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller-Girl), a cycle of 20 songs written by Franz Schubert to poems by Wilhelm Müller. This intimate song cycle, that was originally composed to be sung at a ‘house concert’ among friends, is very different to the selection of songs for the Met recital, which fit that very large space.

The songs tell the story of a young, naive miller, who goes wandering and falls in love with the daughter of another miller. Her feelings for him are possibly flirtatious, probably nonexistent, and when she leaves him for a hunter, the young man is devastated. In the end he is drowned in the stream whose music and counsel have followed him throughout the tale.

Sung without a break, the songs (Lieder in German) cover every emotion, from youthful energy, joy, and love, to frustration, jealousy, and despair. The piano accompaniment is not only a perfect musical picture of the setting (especially the stream), characters, and events, but also every emotion the young miller feels. It is an incredible, emotional journey and I wish I could better describe it.

But why travel so far for such a short concert? Why not just listen to a CD?

There are a couple of reasons. Die schöne Müllerin was the first CD by Kaufmann that I bought and I wore that thing out.  But that was recorded in 2009. He has had three years of life and singing experience since then. How does he sing it now? Is it any different?

If I could distill into one point what it is that I most like about Kaufmann’s singing, it is his (to my ears) ability to express emotions and tell a story with his voice. I admit that I’m only aware of this in the German repertory, because I understand the words—I have no idea if he is as successful in French and Italian. Not only does he have a sort of ‘forward motion’ of the line, an underlying energy and pulse even in slow passages that works perfectly with the German words, but he also shapes each word, giving it exactly the right weight, stress, attack… from word, to phrase, to verse, all building big picture of the piece. I’m not sure if I’m explaining this properly, and I’m sure there are some musical terms for this…

And I can’t help it, to my American ears, all the rrrrrrrollling German RRRRRRRs sound like the mill wheel!

I recently listened to my Fritz Wunderlich CD of Die schöne Müllerin. He was a wonderful lyrical singer, and it’s a CD that I’ll go back to and enjoy. While listening to him, I could easily imagine the scene in a Biedermeier house in Vienna, friends gathered around the piano to listen. I heard notes that I never noticed when listening to Jonas Kaufmann. I heard “songs”: beautifully sung, but songs.  But I heard nothing that would move a 15-year-old to tears, as happened at this recital. Kaufmann’s Müllerin is an emotional journey—in fact I remember thinking afterwards “Somehow I can’t imagine people sitting in a salon in 1824 hearing that!”

Schubert playing while his songs are sung (drawn from memory by someone who was there!)

Schubert playing while his songs are sung (drawn from memory by someone who was there!)

I also understand, after listening to Wunderlich, why some people don’t like Kaufmann’s lieder singing and think he should stick to opera. I think both approaches are valid, but I’m all about the emotion, so I know which one I prefer. Anyway, they should blame Helmut Deutsch, his long-time pianist and former lieder teacher at the Musikhochschule in Munich, who famously asked him why he never brought the passion to lieder singing that he brought to his opera studies. And the rest is history.

Not the recital we saw. Just to give you an idea!

Not the recital we saw. Just to give you an idea!

We took our great seats and let the magic begin. From the first notes, the audience’s energy and attention were completely focused on the two performers. And this is another reason why I’m a convert to the live experience. The atmosphere was absolutely—well electric is not really the word—maybe intense-in-a-good-way. There was no shuffling, stirring, snoring (!) or anything else. The woman sitting in front of us even put away her iPad, on which she’d been playing Bingo right to the last minute. And miracle of all, minimal coughing. You really could have heard a pin drop. And the sound of the pages of the programs turning. If you were to visualize it, there would be waves of energy between Kaufmann and Deutsch, and waves of energy between us in the audience and them on stage. I think we could have powered something!

As I wrote about the Met recital, all this emotion is in the voice, with minimal gesturing although certainly facial expression. Believe me, any further moving around would have distracted from the emotion. Never raising his voice much above forte (I’m guessing), Kaufmann used every shading of volume from there to the softest singing. I would say that compared to the CD of three years ago, his interpretation has matured (is that possible in songs about a young man? I think so) and become in some places more subtle; in others more animated.

Some things I remembered: the emotionally different readings of each repetition of Mein Schatz hat’s Grün so gern / Mein Schatz hat’s Jagen so gern / Mein Schatz hat’s Grün so gern/; the incredible tenderness with which the words in dem blauen kristallenen Kämmerlein from the last song were sung; and how Der Jäger was just on the borderline between being a very fast, angry song and turning into a mere tongue-twister (a delicate balance—perhaps the tongue-twisting aspect is only for non-native German speakers).

He works in full partnership with pianist Helmut Deutsch who said once in an interview that he knows from looking at Kaufmann’s back (his view from the piano) where’s he’s going with the music! Because of course the other hallmark of ‘live’ is that it’s slightly different every time.

Musical partnership - again not at our recital (no pictures!)

Musical partnership – again not at our recital (no pictures!)

And my final reason for loving ‘live’—the sound quality. There simply is no comparison. Whether a super-fancy professional broadcast recording or a recording done from a digital recorder in a bag during a live concert, the voice and piano sound much, much different live. Recordings lose the very things I enjoy the most: the range of volume from softest piano to loudest forte is flattened into a narrower range; and (I have no other word for this) the “three-dimensionality” of the music is lost. I guess that’s also a kind of flattening, but of the various over- and undertones. It’s a cliche, but it’s like seeing a print of a Van Gogh painting and then seeing the real painting. Whomp!!

The audience gave them an enthusiastic standing ovation, several curtain calls, and they returned for one encore, another Schubert song, “Der Jüngling an der Quelle”. Then they were whisked back to New York.

As Susan said in her one-word review: Brilliant!

Susan and I met SingingScholar and Zerbinetta (I’m happy to keep anonymity) out front, who kindly invited us to join them for drinks afterwards at the Doodle—the Yankee Doodle Tap Room in the Nassau Inn. We walked to Palmer Square and spent the next hour discussing the recital, life in academia, and the peculiarities of driving in New Jersey (No Turns. All Turns. Jughandles.).

SingingScholar left to catch the Dinky (tiny one-car spur train line to the main Princeton station then onward to New York), and Susan and I drove back to our friends in Hamilton Township, basking in the afterglow of the music and friendship. The drive back to North Carolina the next day was trouble-free and made interesting because following Susan’s expert navigation (she is a Virginia native), we took a detour around Washington DC and had an excellent lunch at the Houndstooth Cafe in Hanover, Virginia. I love a place with an address like this: “Corner of Routes 301 and 54”. Probably the best fried fish sandwich I have ever had!

So yes: it was all SO worth it!

I commend, recommend, suggest, beg, and plead that you read the following two REAL reviews:

by Singing Scholar:

by Zerbinetta:

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2 Responses to Priceless: Jonas Kaufmann Recital in Princeton NJ

  1. tworivers58 says:

    Great capture of the experience! It makes me want to pull out my one recording of Die schöne Müllerin and have a listen (of course, it is not Jonas …)

  2. Pingback: Parsifal Pilgrimage | The Long and Winding Road

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