The Dutch mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn and the Israeli-born, American pianist Inon Barnatan have lined up a marvellous programme of nocturnal music, a sensitive, subtle and poetic walk with artists whose well-rounded and contrasting oeuvres guarantee many a surprise. They will be in the company of Schubert and Berg, Mussorgsky and Britten, and also of Ravel whose enchanting Gaspard de la nuit lends its title to this recital.
In the recital you are performing with pianist Inon Barnatan, you combine the dark of the night with the naïve and the childlike.
I deliberately chose those extremes, which cover so many aspects of the night. We begin with three great Schubert lieder, Winterabend, Der Zwerg and Erlkönig, which we alternate with parts of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. In Winterabend it is as if the curtains of the night open. You experience nature as it can be in winter, harmonious and peaceful. There is the smell of winter, of wood burning in the fireplace. The song Der Zwerg deals with the secret relationship between a queen and a dwarf. The dwarf murders the queen in the night. When I first sang the song, I was struck by the way Schubert creates and describes the underlying layer. From the beginning to the end, you sense that a sinister and gruesome ritual is under way. The dwarf takes the queen off on a boat into the middle of a lake where he strangles her with a red silk cord, knowing that it means he will have to remain on the lake for eternity. While all that is happening, nature is described: you see a nebulous landscape, you see the night, you see the mist gradually enshroud the large lake, and in that mist you see a boat - of which we know nothing - slowly tie up. When the dwarf tells the queen it is her own fault, you feel a new story rise to the surface. That one song conceals so much. It is a sheer delight to sing. I love writing, and I simply adore fairytales and mythological stories. I find it fascinating; it’s like being allowed to tell the audience the most wonderful stories.
Is there a fairytale that particularly appeals to you?
One really beautiful one is Hans Christian Andersen’s Picture-Book without Pictures and it fits in very well with this programme. Andersen is in Italy and describes how every night the moon appears at his window and tells him what it has seen in its passage across the sky, sketching a universal picture of life. One night it tells of a child, another night of the poverty it witnessed, of two lovers, of death, a birth, an old man, love, war. The result is thirty-three exquisite paintings in which the moon reflects us living our lives. The recital is built up in a similar sort of way. Every song is a story in its own right, each one is unique and shows a different aspect of the night.
You alternate the Schubert lieder with parts of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, which is most unusual.
The inspirational pianist Inon Barnatan suggested we add Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit. We decided together to split it up, because the different pieces show the magical side of night, the mysterious, the surrealistic and also the threatening side, which are all very much part of the theme. Ondine, the first movement, tells of a water nymph who sings to seduce an observer and take him off to her kingdom in the depths of the sea. Le Gibet is a dark movement in which we are presented with a view of a gibbet and the lone corpse of a hanged man on the horizon as the death-knell tolls. Scarbo fits in very well with Der Zwerg and the Erlkönig, because it is about a devilish dwarf, half troll, half spirit. It is bathed in a very strange and mysterious light which is compatible with a song like the Erlkönig. After the interval I wanted to show a totally different side of the night, because for a child the night is different, something adults find hard to comprehend. I sing about the night seen through the eyes of a mother, as in Britten’s Charm of Lullabies, and the night as envisioned by a child as in Mussorgsky’s Nursery Songs. They are wonderful miniatures of a child’s imagination.
What aspect of the night do Alban Berg’s four lieder illustrate?
Night can also evoke a sense of fear and intimidation. Berg’s lieder are surrealistic; you ask yourself if you are sleeping or dreaming. So many mysterious things happen at once in the Schubert lieder and Gaspard de la nuit that we begin to wonder if daily life is reality or dream. That question is answered in Berg’s lieder. They are highly abstract and have a very interesting underlayer as in Schubert’s lieder. Hebbel’s Schlafen from Dem Schmerz sein Recht begins with a simple piano section and you feel yourself slowly sink into a deep sleep, shrouded by mist. It is not a dream and you don’t want to be roused from it. The song ends with Daß ich, (…) nur noch tiefer mich verhülle, fester zu die Augen tu’!, the desire to sink even deeper into that very long, deep sleep, eyes closed tight. That’s why it’s nice to begin with Schubert’s Winterabend, because it is as if the long winter sleep has begun, which then drifts through a dreamscape along the dark edges of consciousness. In Dem Schmerz sein Recht you actually feel the pain Berg depicts in the harmony and its rawness shows a different side of the story. This is music the audience may not understand immediately. Berg’s lieder describe the area between life and death, when we find ourselves in a state of utter confusion and try to work out where we have come from. It is the confusion found in Buddhist writings, like Sogyal Rinpoche’s magnificent Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which describes the stage between life and death when you have just died and emerge into a new dimension of freedom.
So the contrast between Schubert’s and Berg’s lieder on the one hand, and those of Britten and Mussorgsky on the other, could hardly be greater!
It was important to me to show not only the dark and disconcerting sides but also the humour that night can bring. We thought it would be nice to conjure up a mythological atmosphere, which cannot exist without humour.
Do you prefer to give recitals rather than perform on the operatic stage?
I am a lied singer and only do maybe one opera a year. Putting together these sort of programmes, looking for themes is like a sketchbook of the imagination. The intimacy with the pianist is exciting too. It is a dream come true to be able to earn a living in this way. Though it is wonderful to sing the occasional opera, it is not the same thing as the lied. The lied is more direct and the singer is more exposed, more vulnerable, though you can be vulnerable and find intimacy in the opera too. Many operas have been written with that quality – those of Janáček, for example, which I love. Even in Wagner there are moments of vulnerability and intimacy. I like to sing roles which come close to the lied, like Pauline in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama. She sings a lied in the opera in which she has to accompany herself on the piano. And then there’s the intimacy of Marguerite in the viola solo in La Damnation de Faust.
You also regularly give master-classes.
Firstly, I would never call them master-classes because I don’t regard myself as a master. I prefer to call them workshops and see them as an exchange. Teaching is inspirational because you become more aware of how you experience something yourself. I can’t impose anything on anyone and everyone has his own technical background, but I can help them tell the story. What I have noticed with these workshops is that very young people don’t dare to tell the story. So I have to try and draw it out so that the students don’t think that a lied is only intimate, but realize that it can be just as extreme and intense as an operatic role.
Recorded by Frederic Delmotte