Hopes are high for young German tenor Jonas Kaufmann. He made quite a splash in recital at the Edinburgh festival, and he is already high on the roster at Zurich Opera, one of Europe's best houses. But on the strength of this performance - one that sharply divided the audience - it's in that latter, operatic direction that his voice is headed. In a programme including some of the cornerstones of the lieder repertoire, he rarely sounded at ease. Indeed, during the Schumann that formed the first half of his programme (four of the Op 35 Kernerlieder, and the song cycle Dichterliebe), Kaufmann often gave the impression he would be more comfortable singing Puccini in a hall 10 times this size.
It's not that singers with hefty voices can't perform this repertoire - just that they'd need to have more vocal control than Kaufmann seems currently to command. His dark, baritonal timbre didn't open out easily on the high notes unless he could sing them at full Italianate blast. This meant that songs such as Ich grolle nicht, in which the highest notes coincide with the moment of greatest passion, suited him well, but in more restrained numbers his voice could sound effortfully produced, even cumbersome, leaving little room for the nuances of Schumann. And Helmut Deutsch's accompaniment, though sensitive, was reticent and not characterful enough to compensate.
Still, when Kaufmann did relax, his performing would suddenly take flight. He fleetingly turned on the charm for Die Rose, Die Lilie, Die Taube. Then, hands in pockets, he brought a swagger to Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen. In the final song of Dichterliebe, he found his voice and was sounding authoritative.
With Liszt's Three Petrarch Sonnets, we finally heard this very Mediterranean-sounding singer in Italian. But the problems were still there, and transitions from loud to soft were rarely smooth. He seemed far happier in the six Strauss songs that closed the programme; back in his native language, and in command of the music's grander gestures, he was at his most communicative: expansive in Heimliche Aufforderung, calm and controlled in Traum durch die Dämmerung, gently mocking in Wozu noch, Mädchen. A trio of encores, ending with Schumann's Mondnacht, brought his best singing of the evening.