Symphony Hall, Birmingham
When Andris Nelsons made his Bayreuth debut in 2010 conducting a new production of Lohengrin, Jonas Kaufmann sang the title role. The relationship forged then between conductor and tenor was clearly a good one, for Kaufmann is now touring with Nelsons and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, beginning with an appearance in Symphony Hall – his first British concert outside London and Edinburgh.
Framed by orchestral seascapes – Nelsons began with the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Britten's Peter Grimes and ended with a slightly overmoulded account of Debussy's La Mer – Kaufmann sang Richard Strauss and Mahler. If the group of Strauss's orchestral songs was straightforward enough – the four from his Op 27, together with Ich Trage meine Minne from Op 32, sung with almost casual ease, unfailingly lustrous tone and effortless beauty of line – the Mahler was much less predictable. The Rückert settings of Kindertotenlieder are so often heard as an orchestral cycle for low voice, most often with a mezzo-soprano, or sometimes a baritone, that it is a surprise to discover a high-voice version does exist, transposed up a minor third; the orchestral parts had to be obtained from Mahler's publisher in Vienna, and whether it has ever been heard before in this country remains uncertain.
I am not sure Kaufmann made a totally convincing case for Mahler's cycle in this form, however. He lavished all his care and artistry on the five songs, his tone dark and veiled; his simple directness in the third, Wenn dein Mütterlein, was devastatingly effective, and his restraint in the final In Diesem Wetter was beautifully judged. Nelsons sifted and shaped the orchestral lines around the voice as deftly as ever, but colour and textures never quite gelled into a single, heartbreaking statement, as they can in the most memorable performances.
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