The nature of love as explored in the songs and duets of Brahms and Schumann was the subject of Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau’s latest Barbican concert, carefully programmed by pianist Helmut Deutsch, and forming an effective sequel to their near-dramatised performances of Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch in 2018. Less overtly histrionic than that earlier concert, and consequently more reflective in tone, the new programme nevertheless had much in common with it, with groups of songs by each composer carefully fashioned into narratives of love, loss, desire and affirmation, all of them sharply differentiated.

Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann.
Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann. Photograph: Mark Allan

Unlike its predecessor, however – which gave us, after all, a self-contained work – this recital juxtaposed the little known with the familiar, and took occasional liberties with the latter. Both composers’ duets are genuine rarities and frequently fascinating. Schumann’s Tragödie, depicting a catastrophic elopement that leaves its lovers defenceless in exile, is marvellously structured with a song for each singer before the two voices weave together in sad contemplation of past and future. Brahms’s Boten der Liebe, which brought the concert to its close, is utterly ravishing with its interlocking vocal lines conveying infinite affection and quiet contentment. More equivocal, however, was Kaufmann and Damrau’s decision to fashion duets from songs containing dialogue but originally intended for a single performer, which brought home the bawdry, often overlooked, of Brahms’s Vergebliches Ständchen, but dissipated the tensions of his extraordinary Von ewiger Liebe.

For the most part, they sang superbly. Kaufmann was on particularly fine form, his tone dark and beautiful, his dynamic control exemplary as he marvellously captured the introspection of Schumann’s unsettling Resignation and Brahms’s Waldeinsamkeit, and powered his way through the steady crescendo of Stille Tränen from Schumann’s Kerner Lieder with extraordinary intensity. Damrau took a few minutes to settle: there were a couple of moments, early on, when her diction slipped uncharacteristically. Later she gave us some wonderful things – shock as well as sadness in the second song of Tragödie, and a deeply felt, rapturous performance of Schumann’s Lied der Suleika. At over two hours, this was a longish programme, and Deutsch, tireless and indefatigable, played with great subtlety and dramatic restraint throughout.



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