For his first recital La Monnaie Werner Van Mechelen will perform a programme of sublime lieder given to contemplation and introspection - from Franz Schubert’s pious Litanei as a tribute to dead souls, through Gustav Mahler’s moving farewell to the world, to Richard Strauss’ timeless Morgen celebrating everlasting love. Accompanied by pianist Eric Schneider, the Belgian baritone will traverse a century of romantic German lieder, starting with three of the most emblematic composers.
How did you arrive at the theme of Aller Seelen? - not the most obvious choice for a recital.
All Souls and the dramatic nature of death is a recurring theme in music and literature. Not only is it charged with meaning and emotion, but it also appeals to me personally. Many composers from the romantic period and above all late-romanticism dealt with the theme in their music and it establishes an automatic link between the composers Franz Schubert, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Moreover, these composers set to music many texts by the poets Friedrich Rückert and Johann Baptist Mayrhofer who frequently explored the theme.
Have you often had to deal with death in your private life?
Fortunately no, not as yet. I realize of course that it is something everyone has to deal with it at some stage in their life. Having been brought up as a Christian by my parents, I have been intrigued by death since childhood. I want a large family - I have four children – but you have to realize that everything is transitory. There’s no getting away from that. An illness like cancer can afflict anyone of us, as it did my father-in-law. So I try and enjoy each day, knowing that it won’t last for ever. The death earlier this year of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau affected me deeply. He was my idol for so long, a shining light. He now lives on in his recordings.
Do you find yourself identifying with the texts of the lieder?
Yes I do, frequently, and that can be a danger because if I sing a song I have a great affinity with, I sometimes find it difficult to stay grounded. For example, I am fascinated by the role of Amfortas in Parsifal, who yearns for death as a release from suffering. When I rehearse that part, I have to stop at certain points because I find it so deeply moving. My role as Sancho Pança in Massenet’s Don Quichotte – a production I sang with José van Dam at La Monnaie – was also about mortality and death. The last act was very difficult for me emotionally, but during a performance I have to be able to distance myself from the text and from the role, otherwise you end up with a lump in your throat.
It is said that Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was autobiographically inspired.
I don’t know if Mahler was expressing his own longing for death in that song, but he did meet with adversity in life. For example, in 1907 he lost his young daughter Maria Anna. Many artists are not entirely at home in this world. They often think they are not fully understood and go through life in a melancholic or even depressed state. However, a lied like Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) is relevant to everyone; the message is universal.
With the exception of the Litanei über das fest der Aller Seelen, you can hardly say that the subject matter of the lieder in your recital is Christian.
Above all, a link between death and nature runs through it. However, in many lieder God is referred to indirectly, as for example in Mahler’s Urlicht: the light you see in the distance – something better you hope and strive for. In Schubert’s Totengräbers Heimweh you even hear a very macabre longing for death. It questions the point of life and also expresses the desire for something better.
Strauss seems to be more businesslike as a composer than Schubert and Mahler.
And you see that in his lieder too. De Drei Gesänge are about aging, about the things we have to relinquish. He begins colourfully with birth and youth and ends with death. But because of the style of his music, everything feels more positive. Death is also extolled in Aller Seelen. I end the recital with Morgen to express the hope that tomorrow things will be better. The lied is about a couple that finds eternal happiness together. They want to sit together in silence shutting out the world around them. In that way Strauss alludes to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, where love and death go hand in hand.
This is your first recital at La Monnaie. What does that mean to you?
I am absolutely delighted! It was something I had dreamt of for so long. What is more, one of the best lied accompanists – Eric Schneider – agreed to be my pianist. He has great vision and that makes him fantastic to work with. We followed several master-classes together under Hartmut Höll and the two of us also put this programme together. I love opera, and particularly Wagner and Verdi, but I feel myself when I can sing lieder. Singing comes from the heart, from deep inside. The closer the bond with the music, the more sincerely and better I can sing a piece. And that certainly applies to romantic German lieder.
Recorded by Frederic Delmotte