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Album review: Tenor Jonas Kaufmann a prime example of what Wagner should sound like

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Sung well, there’s nothing that moves the soul like Wagner’s vocal music. But its intense demands can, over time, abuse the vocal cords. Older Wagnerian tenors often sound ragged as they huff and puff and push out the notes.

German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is, at 43, right in the vocal sweet spot both physically and artistically. He has a strong, burnished timbre and tremendous dynamic range. He also displays impeccable musicianship in a new Decca album of opera excerpts and the Wesendonck-Lieder by Richard Wagner.

wagneralbumKaufmann gets strong, impeccably nuanced support from the Orchestra and Choir of Deutsche Oper Berlin under conductor Donald Runnicles.

What has, to me, often sounded like vocal overkill on Kaufmann’s part in Italian opera sounds perfectly natural in this 11-track release, officially set to go on sale Feb. 18.

The most popular of the tenor’s choices is “Am stillen Herd” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That is joined by “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater” from Die Walkyrie, “Dass der mein Vater nicht ist” from Siegfried, “Insbrunst im Herzen” from Tannhaüser and the Grail Narration from Lohengrin with bass-baritone Markus Brück, and “Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab!” from Rienzi.

This is a sort of Wagner survey, showing off the development of his compositional style (even though the tracks are not arranged chronologically). The earlier operas are more conventional. The Ring operas demand a special style that combines the clarity of speech with the smooth phrasing of song.

My favourites on the album are the five Wesendonck-Lieder — especially the final “Träume,” a song celebrating blossoming love followed by death (ah, those German Romantics!) that was a preliminary sketch for Tristan und Isolde. It’s an unforgettable mix of power and wistfulness, sung with a voice you might just want to get lost in.

When I listen to Wagner, this is how I dream it should sound. What a gift for the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

For all the details on this album, click here.

Here is Kaufmann singing “Winterstürm wichen dem Wonnemond,” from Die Walkyrie (not on the album), followed by the promotional trailer for the new disc:

John Terauds

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