A compelling version of this cycle to challenge the very best

Just over two years ago I reviewed enthusiastically a wonderfully spontaneous-sounding recording of Schumann by this talented, seemingly little-known young baritone (Channel Classics, 6/00). I found this reading of Schubert’s cycle, already so often recorded, a confirmation, if that were needed, of Jochen Kupfer’s beautiful singing, and even more of his gifts as a Lieder interpreter. Coming so soon after the gloomy and laborious Goerne performance, this one was balm to the ear, restoring my appetite for a cycle that I thought I might have heard once too often.

Kupfer’s voice and style is highly reminiscent of Wolfgang Holzmair’s, but his technique is just that shade firmer and his voice more youthful than the older baritone’s with Imogen Cooper, recalling rather the Austrian singer’s first (1983) recording on Preiser, which helped him on his way outside his native land. Both artists have a tenor-like quality to their voices, coming near to some ideal for the work. As on his Schumann disc, Kupfer begins with the basic verities of immaculate line and imaginative phrasing. To that he adds a complete identification with the youthful lover’s aspirations and eventual disappointment and tragedy.

This lad sets out with a spring in his heels and a smile in his voice, the singer quite avoiding the despondency in Goerne’s voice from the outset. All is going to be well in his wooing. That is conveyed in the first few songs with fresh immediacy as though the poetic emotions and their setting were new-minted. The arrival of the unwanted and aggressive hunter provokes an almost breathless jealousy and, in that arresting song, ‘Die liebe Farbe’, an appropriately mesmeric, plaintive approach. From there on the downward curve of emotional feeling, so arrestingly depicted in the words and music, finds in Kupfer and his alert partner an answering mood of despair, the raw and anguished passion in those final three songs fully achieved. All the while you feel the disillusionment and pathos in the texture and verbal acuity of the interpretation.

With a finely balanced recording to add to one’s pleasure, this is a performance among baritones that I would place very near the top of the pile, if not at its apex, and it challenges even the prevailing tenor recommendations, the versions by Ian Bostridge and Werner Güra.

Alan Blyth, Gramophone
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