Jonas Kaufmann: You Mean the World to Me (CD review)

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Julia Kleiter, soprano; Jochen Rieder, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Sony Classical 88843087712.

This disc is for fans of international superstar Jonas Kaufmann, fans of early twentieth-century stage and screen songs, and maybe fans of Romantic nostalgia as well.

German operatic singer Jonas Kaufmann says that the idea for the album You Mean the World to Me came to him at the end of a concert when he had finished singing a light number for a crowd of 20,000 delighted admirers. He thought, "Why should songs such as "You Are My Heart's Delight" and "You Mean the World to Me" be no more than encores? Why not make them and other perennial favourites the main programme?" Accordingly, we have an album that includes seventeen light songs by German, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian, and Bohemian composers, the songs presented in their original arrangements and written between 1925-1935 for the Berlin stage and screen. The tunes cover a turbulent era that included postwar economic strife, the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the close of the Roaring Twenties, the worldwide Great Depression, and the rise of Naziism. Yet through it all, people wrote and sang and listened to music: popular, folk, jazz, and classical. On the present album, Kaufmann sings for us some of his favorite popular songs of the period.

Now, here's the thing: You have to remember that Mr. Kaufmann is primarily an opera singer, and when opera singers turn to more-popular fare, the results sometimes sound a bit like overkill. Such is the case here, with Kaufmann's huge tenor voice occasionally overpowering the simplicity of the stage and film numbers presented. He takes it all very seriously, of course, but by making most of the selections sound like pieces from Wagnerian opera, he perhaps loses a little something in the way of stage-musical color and drama. That is, he never quite convinced this listener that he was a character in a musical play or a part of an actual story line. Instead, he offers the songs out of context in big, full-throated fashion, some in German, some in English, the ones in German coming off best. Nonetheless, there is little doubt he loves the material, and his vocal presence conveys solid authority and conviction. He will not disappoint his fans.

The songs are too numerous to cover, so I'll just mention the names of the composers and point out a few selections I enjoyed most. The composers include some familiar names and a few less familiar: Lehar, Tauber, Stolz, Kalman, Heymann, Abraham, Benatzky, May, Spoliansky, Kunneke, and Korngold.

Jonas Kaufmann
My favorite selections include everything by Franz Lehar, whose operettas have always delighted me. Here, you'll find "Girls Were Made to Love and Kiss," "You Are My Heart's Delight," "My Little Nest of Heavenly Blue," all sung in English; and "Freunde, Das Leben Ist Lebenswert" and "Je T'ai Donne mon coeur." Lehar was probably the most popular operetta composer of his or any other day, and Kaufmann does his music fair justice. Years ago the singer Richard Tauber was instrumental in Lehar's prosperity, helping to make Lehar's songs so wildly successful. In fact, Marlene Dietrich once remarked that she understood why Bing Crosby was such a big star: "He's learnt everything from Tauber." Anyway, I bring it up because Kaufmann has a big order to fill the vocal shoes of Tauber (and to a lesser extent Crosby). Having only heard Tauber on a very few occasions, I can say that Kaufmann surpasses him handily in vocal command; however, Tauber had a more delicate way of phrasing lines, something that tends slightly to escape Kaufmann, who is more of an operatic technician than a Twenties' crooner.

Kaufmann seems most at home in the music of Robert Stolz ("Im Traum Hast du Mir Alles Erlaubt," "Don't Ask Me Why"). Stolz wrote primarily for films, and his material seems fairly accessible today, with Kaufmann appearing to put even more heart in it than he does some of the other selections. Likewise with Emmerich Kalman and Werner Richard Heymann. The songs trip lightly off Kaufmann's tongue.

On three numbers soprano Julia Kleiter joins Kaufmann, and she provides a charming counterbalance to the tenor's big, robust voice. In all, it's a delightful album, and while I may have some minor reservations, it offers a ton of musical pleasures.

Producer Philipp Nedel, balance engineer Philip Siney, and recording engineers Martin Kistner and Hansjorg Seiler made the album at the Broadcasting Center, Nalepastrasse, Berlin in January 2014. Kaufmann's voice sounds well recorded, although it's a little closer to us than the orchestra. In the media pictures of him, he's singing directly into a microphone, and that's how his voice comes off in the recording, somewhat bigger than life compared to the orchestral accompaniment. Still, there is little glare or edge in the voice, and it appears quite natural. The orchestra plays lightly and sweetly behind him, never intrusive, always supportive, and sounding nicely detailed at the same time. It clearly knows its place.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (CD review)

Also, Night on the Bare Mountain (original and Rimsky-Korsakov versions) and several shorter works. Theodore Kuchar, National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Naxos 8.555924.

This is another one of those modestly priced Naxos releases that helps define the word "bargain." To begin with, it will delight hi-fi buffs because the sound is exceptionally clean. Not only are the dynamics strong and the frequency response wide, there is virtually no bass hangover to cloud the midrange. This can be a blessing and a curse, naturally, depending on your standpoint. The transparency of the sound is superb, but without the bass resonance, there isn't a lot of concert hall feel to the music. An audiophile friend of mine once told me he didn't like attending live orchestral events because the sound of real music was too muddy for him; it sounded better in his home. He'd like this disc. I, on the other hand, prefer the added warmth of a little bass overhang and hall reverberation. Personal taste.

Nevertheless, there's no denying Maestro Kuchar's disc sounds great and, more important, its musical content will satisfy a lot of people because there's something here for everyone. The first two items are Night on the Bare Mountain, performed first as originally composed by Modest Mussorgsky and then as later reorchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Although most of us have multiple copies of the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov version, the original is harder to find, the best one still being with David Lloyd-Jones and the London Philharmonic on an old Philips album. But to have both versions on one disc along with the Pictures at an Exhibition is somewhat unique. This was the first time I'd ever actually listened to the two versions of Bare Mountain side by side, and it amazed me how different they are and how much I had underappreciated the composer's original version. Mussorgsky's view is much the coarser, more awkward, of course, but considering the content of the tone poem--a Witches' Sabbath, after all--it works pretty well.

Theodore Kuchar
In addition to Bare Mountain and Pictures, the disc contains two short pieces, the "Hopak" from Sorochintsy Fair and "Golitsin's Exile" from Khovanchchina, both of them done up by Kuchar in fine, vivid, vivacious style.

The Pictures at an Exhibition, as you know, is a series of musical paintings, and Maestro Kuchar does well with them, each episode except the last being quite well characterized. I thought the "Great Gate of Kiev" a trifle underpowered, but the interpretation may have suffered from what was for it an unfortunate comparison: Just about the time I first listened this 2003 Naxos disc, I had just listened to Fritz Reiner's celebrated RCA Living Stereo account with the Chicago Symphony on what was then a newly remastered (and very costly) JVC XRCD compact disc. The old Reiner recording is a marvel of technical accomplishment and musical know-how that clearly upstaged the new entry in every way, albeit at almost five times the cost on JVC and with no fillers.

Nevertheless, Kuchar's account, especially in the early going, holds its own against almost any competition and should please practically anyone who doesn't already have a favorite Pictures. For the money, one can hardly go wrong.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


Joshua Bell: Bach (CD review)

Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2; Air; Gavotte en Rondeau. Joshua Bell, violin; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Sony Classical 88843 08779 2.

I said recently that I'm always a little suspicious of albums that feature the name of the star soloist over that of the composer he or she is playing. There seems to me a good deal of hype from the recording company and more than a touch of egotism on the part of the star involved. Fortunately, when the star is as far beyond reproach as Joshua Bell, it probably doesn't matter. In this case, all we get on the album's cover are the words "Joshua Bell: Bach." It's as if it doesn't even matter what he's playing; so long as we know who's involved, that should be all that counts. I admit I'm still a little put off by it, but I can't deny the results are decidedly agreeable.

So, the first things on the program are Bach's two Violin Concertos, No. 1 in A Minor, BWV 1041 and No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042. Bell, as soloist and leader of the orchestra, takes both of them at a modest clip. There is no rushing about here to outpace the historically informed crowd. Nor is the reading too slow or sluggish. Instead, Bell takes a middle ground, providing a stylishly elegant interpretation that does the music proud.

The question, I suppose, is whether these performances are significantly better or at least different from a dozen other recommendable performances to warrant the disc or download purchase. Certainly, one can say that Bell is a commanding performer, his Bach concertos projected with authority. The articulation one hears in every note by the soloist and the orchestra is a cause for joy. So, yes, one senses a strong presence involved, and there's surely nothing wrong with that. Still, I'm not sure he erases memories of old favorites like Menuhin, Grumiaux, Kuijken, Meyers, Hahn, Zehetmair, St. John, and others. But that isn't the point, I'm sure. Mr. Bell is a modern star, and he will not disappoint his fans or Bach fans with his performances. And it goes without saying that the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, seemingly pared down a bit for the occasion, perform with their usual impeccable finesse.

While I enjoyed Bell's control in the concertos, I liked the accompanying short pieces even more. First, there's the Chaconne, played in Mendelssohn's violin-and-piano arrangement with a further orchestral augmentation made by Julian Milone. Bell calls it an "arrangement of an arrangement" or a "homage to a homage." Whatever, it's delicious, subtle and refined, the orchestra never an intrusion on the detailed intricacy of the work, Mr. Bell's virtuosic musicianship always at the service of the music.

Joshua Bell
Following the Chaconne is the famous Air from Bach's Orchestral Suite in D Major, and ending the show is the Gavotte en Rondeau from the E Major Partita in an arrangement inspired by Robert Schumann's piano accompaniment. Bell handles these closing numbers with an exquisite sensitivity, making them a delight.

As I say, there is not much one can complain about here. The performances are first rate and the sound is fine. However, there is one minor personal annoyance I should mention that I'm sure most other folks wouldn't even notice. Now, understand, I realize that Mr. Bell is a superstar musician and all, and I recognize that he, his publicist, the orchestra, and the record company want to capitalize on his popularity. But I wonder if it's really necessary to have full-page pictures of the man on the booklet cover, the booklet back, the inside of the disc case, the back of the disc case, and two more within the notes? Plus several more pictures of what I take to be his hands. I mean, aren't six full-page pictures something like overkill in so small a product? Well, OK, picky, I know.

Adam Abeshouse produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered the album, so if you don't like the sound, you know who to blame. He made it at Air Studio, London in April 2014. The sound is a trifle close, but at the same time it's extremely clear and well delineated. The violin appears well incorporated with the orchestra, not too far out in front or too recessed. What's more, the instrument has a realistic resonance around it, making the strings easy on the ear. There isn't a lot of dimensionality or depth to the orchestra, though; it appears pretty much in the same plane as the violin. As to dynamic range, it is quite wide, probably more so than you would expect from a recording of Bach. In any case, it's all pleasant enough and should please most listeners.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

Readers with impolite, discourteous, bitchy, whining, complaining, nasty, mean-spirited, unhelpful letters may send them to pucciojj@recycle.bin.