New Classical Tracks: Winter Journey

by Julie Amacher
May 14, 2014

Listen New Classical Tracks: Jonas Kaufmann, 'Winterreise'

Jonas Kaufmann - Winterreise (Sony)

For the first time in his 20-year career, tenor Jonas Kaufmann has recorded Winterreise, a cycle of 24 songs by Franz Schubert. It's a setting of poems by Wilhelm Muller that tells the story of a young man wandering through a wintery landscape in despair after learning the woman he loves no longer loves him.

Kaufmann says it's important to familiarize oneself with the subject matter before hearing the full cycle, because its impact can really be depressing. However, he adds, it's also similar to a Greek drama where the emotional experience purges the soul. "I think it's done in a way that you can totally understand what the circumstances are, what the feelings are, the misery, what this person is going through," Kaufmann says. "I don't want to say that everybody has suffered the way that he probably did, but in other circumstances, in different contexts. And I think it's presented in a way from Schubert that is so natural and so human — that's what strikes us so much. And when Schubert was playing it for his friends the first time, they were shocked because they said, 'This is so depressive! You cannot put this out in public because people will commit suicide when they hear it!' "

The songs within this cycle are deep and dark, yet Kaufmann says he finds them almost meditative. "There's this song, 'Wegweiser,' where [the young man] says, 'I know now exactly which way I have to go. I was going in circles all the time and now I know which way I have to go and it's this one road I have to follow, follow, follow to the very end and it's actually the road that no one has ever come back from.' So it is already a hint to suicide.

"And the next song, which is called "Wirtshaus" — you can translate it with 'pub' or something, it's actually a cemetery. And he's looking for a free room in the cemetery and he said, 'Don't you have a small room for me left where I can lay down and finally find rest?' And then he comes back and he reflects, and he says, 'No, actually, I can't. Because I'm not allowed here, I cannot be here.'

"And he's just waiting for, I don't know, for an authority, for God, for whatever you believe in, to make it happen. He ends his misery and he says, 'OK, I can't do it by just waiting. If there is no god around on earth at the moment, let us be gods ourselves', meaning we have to lay our destiny in our own hands. And so it all leads to this ultimate song and you can say he turns crazy or he sees death waiting for him and he says, 'OK, old man. Let's go together.' It's incredible. Now I'm describing it, and even though I'm just talking about it, I get goose bumps only because I think it's so, so intense."

Helmut Deutsch has been Jonas Kaufmann's accompanist since he was a student at the Munich Academy. Kaufmann is thrilled to have such a master joining him for this incredible song cycle. "You have to understand that Schubert is actually one of the composers [who] has written an accompaniment that is quite simple, quite reduced. Schubert leaves you almost alone sometimes. When we were talking about the 'Wegweiser,' there is one note. I think it's a G, that's repeated, on and on and on. First a chord, then two notes, then only one note, so what are you going to do with it? There's not much to help you, to cover up if you are not 100 percent into it. You just have to pull it off. And that's the great thing with Schubert — he gives you a huge space of personal interpretation, which is actually necessary to make this thing come alive.

"And that's one of the difficulties when you sing these songs — you have to be very much into it. Because of course it has to be credible — your feeling, your thought, your emotion. And it has to be very truthful. But at the same time, you shouldn't get lost. Because this is one of the song cycles where you easily can start weeping yourself and not come to a conclusion of these 24 songs. But I think, again, it's a masterpiece and totally unique in the whole world of music."