CD Decca 4782258


“This is marvellous”. I still remember the words of critic Andrew Porter in The Gramophone back in 1965. I duly bought the record as in those days live tapes were still rare and one had to wait till the moment a record appeared to judge for yourself what the fuzz was about on a singer whose name often popped up in Opera Magazine. The miracle singer was Jon Vickers and I found the record less than marvellous. Here was a big beefy voice singing with style though already fond of crooning and in my opinion definitely not in the league of Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi or even Flaviano Labo or Bruno Prevedi, lacking the true colour these Italian arias demanded (Vickers even sang the Martha-aria in Italian). I probably was not the only one who thought so as neither RCA or another label ever produced another commercial operatic recital by the Canadian tenor. Still I don’t doubt that once more some critics and a lot of fans will cry “this is marvellous” on the most Vickers-like recital I heard since those long ago days, the difference being that there are no true great Italian tenors for the moment so that Decca can churn out one after another Kaufman-recording as the firm hasn’t to be afraid that some stiff competition will appear in the same repertory. (The wonderful Calleja is a lirico and not a spinto). I would dearly have liked to be a fly on the wall when Kaufmann and conductor Papano discussed the recording. Both gentlemen know a lot about singing and singers and they both realized the German tenor cannot really compete with the best Italians of the past; surely Kaufmann does so. He is an admirer of Franco Corelli as is clear from his intelligent book long interview in “Meinen die wirklich mich ?”, a German language biography that should be read by any aspiring singer not aware of the sharky conditions in the operatic world .  I therefore presume Pappano and Kaufmann decided to bank on the tenor’s strengths: his musical intelligence, his judicious though slightly exaggerated use of piano and pianissimo and his clean top. But that meant too they couldn’t rely on a gorgeous timbre, intimate and almost instinctive use phrasing due to an inbred knowledge of the language and the repertory à la Bergonzi. They didn’t have at their disposal the overwhelming sound of Del Monaco and Corelli plus the fearless almost atomic bomb like top C (mostly a B in live performances) of the latter. So they went for clear agreeable and fine performances, mostly “come scritto”.

But this is verismo. A real verismo tenor may linger somewhat longer on one of his strong notes; rubato and portamento are not forbidden and the tenor needn’t be afraid to sing a B for eternity or something close to that. He even may interpolate a high note on condition it is a good one and the one moment Kaufmann does it he sounds somewhat unmusical and sharp (compare it with the ringing high B of Björling in the same “E la solita storia”.)  In short it is a fine and nice recital and a little bit bloodless. I doubt only Pappano is somewhat to blame and I think this is really the result of intense consultation between singer and conductor. Take track 1; not the best to begin a verismo recital for those dinosaurs like myself. “Giulietta son io” is one of the very best numbers Mario Del Monaco ever recorded in his very best Decca-recital in 1956. Kaufman sings it nicely and convincingly but the dark guttural  baritone sound, not always pleasing,  is not ideal for the role of a youngster in love and immediately brings to mind the far richer sound of the Italian tenor, who for once started his version restrained, no sobs, no guffawing and sounded gloriously when he finally opened up. It is an example too how an Italian routinier like Erede breathes with his singer and adapts the orchestra to make the tenor shine while still not overindulging every whim. These comparisons, which will probably tire the tenor’s fans and the singer himself, nevertheless pop up with every track and are inevitable. Decca who has invested heavily in the Munich tenor may be the label that in twenty and thirty years will be ridiculed for recording Bocelli as if he was an operatic tenor but for the older generation it is the label of Del Monaco, Labo, Bergonzi and of course Pavarotti. To be honest, I liked Kaufmann better than Pavarotti in Andrea Chénier as his voice has more of the required weight than the Italian who sounded far too slender but he is a far cry from Corelli live at the Vienna State Opera. He simply cannot unleash the voice in the true Italian way. In the Federico aria on the other hand the dark and somewhat beefy voice is mismatched. Kaufmann is better suited to the Marcello aria though here too one misses the raw passion that distinguishes Caruso’s and Del Monaco’s recordings. “Musetta, o gioia della mia dimora” should somehow explode in your face in those first measures instead of  being just sung musically.  I’m somewhat disappointed too with the “Vesti la giubba”, sung straight through and for once I miss a few diminuendos that are normally Kaufmann’s strength and that make (an exception) Vickers 1965 version so impressive. In “Viva il vino” the German tenor has some difficulties in the rapid fire like recitative while his “Mamma ! Mamma , quel vino” is one of his best tracks which reveal he has listened intently and was charmed by Corelli’s classic 1956 recording on Cetra. Kaufmann’s  Faust too sounds too heavy in “Dai campi” and is of course a far cry from Gigli’s luminescent recording. But in “Giunto sul passo” and “Amor ti vieta” Kaufmann is impressive and more musical than the larmoyant Del Monaco recordings. The tenor is at his best in the two arias from Adriana Lecouvreur which he sings simply, with ardour and beautiful phrasing using his good piano instead of just belting them out in the usual Italian manner (I bet he listened to the Greek Nicola Filacuridi who proved in his recording with Favero how to handle these arias without a voice to drown out the Trafalgar battle). The next aria, from Ponchielli’s I Lituani, is sung with grace. I wish Kaufmann would have recorded more unhackneyed repertory. This would avoided comparisons he couldn’t win and would have enriched our collections. Now we only get almost as an afterthought a very melodious wonderful song by Refice which suits the tenor’s voice to a T. And then it’s time for the great finale; indeed in this reviewer’s opinion the most rousing piece ever composed to finish a verismo opera (even Verdi’s finales never got to this level of white hot inspiration): “Vicino a te” from Andrea Chénier. Once more one hears in one’s inner ear Gigli-Caniglia and Del Monaco-Tebaldi or the vibrantly live recordings by Corelli-Stella (Naples 58), Tucker and Bergonzi with Tebaldi at the Met and then Kaufmann-Westbroek fall somewhat flat. The passion is there and Pappano unleashes his orchestra but the basic timbre of the tenor and the soprano just lack that beauty and richness of sound this music demands on record (give me the couple any day in a theatre). Therefore I stick to my guns. I hope Mr. Kaufmann continues to give visitors a lot of joy and pleasure in the theatre in Italian and French roles and I think he shouldn’t waste his voice on Wagner’s big boys but I’m sure that due to his preferences for Italian opera he could give us a wonderful Wagner recital without the usual barking. He could even make some Richard Strauss tenor scenes interesting and he would be the ideal tenor for a recital of German romantic and verismo composers like Kienzl, Nessler, D’Albert, Kreutzer, Cornelius, Marschner. This will probably never happen as the managers in charge of Decca have never heard of these names and are only interested in sales figures.

Jan Neckers