Norman Lebrecht

‘I was really, really scared’

On the eve of his Barbican recital, one of the world’s greatest living tenors reveals all to Norman Lebrecht

‘Hi, it’s Jonas.’ When the great tenor rings from Vienna, I ask if there are any topics he wants me to avoid, such are his minders’ anxieties. ‘Ask anything,’ laughs Jonas. ‘I’m not shy.’

He is heading in from the airport to see a physio — ‘these concerts, you have to stand there all the time’ — before taking Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook on a seven-city Baedeker tour: Vienna, Paris, London, Essen, Luxemburg, Budapest, Barcelona. I wonder if he is aware that Wolf is a hard sell to English audiences. ‘Not just the English,’ he replies. ‘Even in Germany promoters say to me, please don’t do a Wolf-only recital, no one will buy tickets. People don’t know Wolf, so they are afraid of it.’ They shouldn’t be, he says. ‘Wolf is a fantastic composer, never too heavy, he ought to be as acceptable as Schumann or Brahms.’

The foremost German tenor since Fritz Wunderlich, Kaufmann’s presence or absence can make or break a season. His cancellations, which are not infrequent, come with more detailed explanations than the usual ‘indisposed’. Kaufmann agonises over causing inconvenience. ‘When I cancel, I am punishing myself,’ he says. ‘I know singers who hate to sing. They do it because people pay them for it. For me, it’s the absolute opposite. If nobody turned up I would still want to sing. It’s not easy to cancel. I know how many people have gone to trouble to hear me.’

In the past year he twice pulled out of the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss and tongues began wagging about a jinx. Strauss, who mistrusted tenors, asked for his deathbed cycle to be premièred by Kirsten Flagstad in 1950 and the set has belonged to big sopranos ever since. Was Kaufmann not being greedy by coveting the songs, maybe tempting fate?

‘Both times I cancelled I had a cold,’ he says prosaically.

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