Music Review: JONAS KAUFMANN, tenor, & HELMUT DEUTSCH, piano (The Broad Stage in Santa Monica)

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by Tony Frankel on October 22, 2021

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

THESE LIEDERS ARE NOW ON MY LISZT

Something incredibly special is happening in Santa Monica. The Broad Stage has reopened this week with live performances from German Tenor Jonas Kaufmann last night and The Danish String Quartet last Saturday, both of whom are in extraordinary demand in their fields of opera and chamber music. Both concerts were extraordinary, each receiving a most rousing reception. But it was The Broad Stage itself that is newsworthy: While COVID shutdown live performances. the powers that be were busy replacing the seats in this most transplendent, intimate auditorium — truly a jewel in L.A.’s crown of music/stage venues. Even better, the sound has been updated. I was in Row J towards the back of the theater, and the audio positively encircled me. The new acoustics meant that we can hear artists doing what they do best without the aid of amplification.

Herr Kaufmann released a new album Freudvoll und leidvoll (Joyful and sorrowful) on September 17, joining forces again with pianist Helmut Deutsch — who played for Kaufmann on their previous album, Selige Stunde — to perform a program of songs by the largely neglected lieder composer, Franz Liszt. Deutsch has said that Liszt was one of the great idols of his youth, alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Herbert von Karajan. And that is shown by his magnanimous, sensitive, alluring interpretations of Liszt, whose songs covered the first half of the concert at The Broad. Both men have a special affinity for the Liszt lieder, so that composer’s music has long been featured in their shared concert career.

What I can say is this: The written piano accompaniment is outrageously wonderful and gruelingly difficult to play, but Deutsch made it look easy, avoiding those pretentious Lisztian flourishes that many pianists feel are necessary. It also helps that the passages show a kinder, gentler Liszt. But something was a bit amiss for me in that the vocal lines didn’t always seem to match with the accompaniment. Which may validate why Liszt hasn’t always been at the forefront of salon performances. Among Liszt’s musical contributions were the symphonic poem, developing thematic transformation as part of his experiments in musical form, and radical innovations in harmony, but his bite-sized pieces — written between 1840 and 1847 — aren’t at the sumptuous level of other writers represented in this field: Mozart, Schumann, Schubert, Strauss, Dvorak, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mahler.

And interestingly enough, Kaufmann wasn’t nailing the pianissimo passages with controlled strength during the Liszts, which began to grow on me with each song and, later, listening to the CD; but fear not, the tenor warmed up for the second half and his forte blew out the back of my head during the phenomenal concert. His trademark notes — strong, resonating, emotional, timber-shaking — and Shakespearian stage presence were there for this unsurpassed concert, which was so passionate that the sold-out crowd demanded SIX encores, as the still-handsome tenor was tossing out High C’s with seeming ease, as if he were throwing T-Shirts into the audience. Simply thrilling. (He also asked us to hold applause between songs, which was more than wise given their length.) The prices were quite high — most seats being $350 — so this was I assume basically a fan-based crowd. I would love to see him in a role at LA Opera soon. Heaven knows I’ll be getting back to The Broad as often as possible.

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