For sheer vocal splendour, Jonas Kaufmann is unrivalled in Winterreise since Jon Vickers, whose controversial 1983 recording is revelatory or grotesque, according to taste. At moments – say, the clinching final phrase of each verse of ‘Wasserflut’ – Kaufmann unleashes a formidable operatic blade of tone. Yet the dominant impression of this deeply considered Winterreise is of gentle, rueful introspection, momentarily flaring up in embittered protest (forte high notes invariably bring a visceral thrill), then drifting into trance-like resignation.
In the booklet-note – fashioned as a conversation between Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch – the tenor cites the wanderer’s abiding death wish and his incipient insanity. In the closing ‘Der Leiermann’ (which ends with a sudden wail of anguish), he is ‘like a madman talking to the ghost of a dead man.’ (Deutsch ventures to differ on this.) On vocal evidence alone, though, he does not stress the disturbing psychopathology of Winterreise as do fellow tenors Peter Schreier and Ian Bostridge. Kaufmann begins ‘Gute Nacht’ with a chastened delicacy and finds a melting pianissimo, devoid of irony, for the bittersweet final verse. ‘Erstarrung’, taken quite broadly, in response to Schubert’s autograph marking ‘Not too quickly’, is nostalgically reflective rather than urgently impassioned, rising to despair only at the final climax. Here and elsewhere Deutsch’s clear, precise textures, plus the use of Schubert’s original high key, brings dividends in the dialogues between voice and piano bass.
From the hallucinatory, half-whispered ‘Irrlicht’, Kaufmann’s wanderer becomes ever more prone to numb reverie. The haunted ppp colour he finds for the close of ‘Frühlingstraum’ is heart-rending. In ‘Im Dorfe’ he contemplates the sleeping villagers with tenderness rather than derision, and in ‘Im Wirtshaus’ suggests a deepening life-weariness, with no hint of defiance in the last line. The final upshot is a profoundly touching winter journey, one that conveys all of the wanderer’s pathos, vulnerability and isolation. Schreier’s journey across the snowbound landscape is more engulfing, a merciless portrayal of emotional and spiritual disintegration that is only enhanced (in this cycle) by the astringent edge on his tone. But Kaufmann’s combination of vocal beauty and verbal sensitivity (his diction always a model), and the fastidiously textured and coloured playing of Helmut Deutsch, make this new recording an important addition to the vast Winterreise discography.