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The German, bass-baritone Albert Dohmen is recognised as one of the leading Wotans of his generation. For his first recital in our theatre he has put together a programme which pays homage to the great names in the composition of Lieder at the end of the Romantic period. His powerful and sonorous voice and his musical mastery will be employed in the service of rarely sung works by Liszt, Wolf, Strauss and Pfitzner. An evening that promises much and should not be missed.
Liszt’s Sonetti del Petrarca, which you have chosen for the first half, are relatively unknown to the public and don’t often figure in recital programmes. Did you want to encourage the Brussels’ public to discover this music or did you just get carried away with the pleasure of singing a repertoire that is particularly dear to you?
I would say both. First of all I would like to underline that this is a huge honour for me, a real privilege, to be able to perform in this recital. It gives me the chance to introduce myself to the audience, who probably only know me as Wotan or the Dutchman, in a more intimate way; they can get to know me, Albert Dohmen, and not just the characters that I play. It also allows me to be my own conductor, to not have to endlessly find a delicate balance between an orchestra of a hundred and twenty musicians, its conductor and all the constraints that a theatrical production imposes. I am free to interact with my pianist, with whom I have been giving recitals for the last seven years, and to introduce the public to a repertoire that is close to my heart. In German theatres, fifty years ago, Mondays were given over to recitals in order to give the technicians a day off. As a result of this, the recital occupied an important place at the heart of the musical life of the theatre. Alas, this tradition has been lost and today the recital has become an exceptional occurrence, a digression in the season. I find it a great pity that the public has so few opportunities to appreciate the richness of a repertoire of such wide-ranging sensitivity on many levels. I have been living in Italy for more than twenty years, and, even though I have become imbued with all things Italian, I feel deeply German and moved by a real desire to share the marvels that are concealed in the Lied, to be an ambassador for a language and a culture. Of course Liszt’s Sonetti del Petrarca are composed on three of the many sonnets that Laure inspired Petrarch to write, and therefore it goes without saying that they were written in Italian, but, for me, Liszt is a composer that straddles two traditions, the Germanic and Latin, which he blends subtly together, thanks to his travels and all the influences he took on board.
These sonnets are imbued with a great theatricality. Liszt was mad about opera, a genre which also invaded the salons in the form of paraphrases, versions for piano and other novelties, side by side with melodramas – these poems set to music. The grandiose and dramatic qualities of these works left their mark on the composer’s imagination. As a result he abandoned the stanza form in favour of the lied durchkomponiert where the successive verses of the poem unfold against a perpetually changing musical landscape. Is it not Albert Dohmen, the opera singer, that we find influencing this choice?
Doubtlessly this is a way for me to express the opera singer side of me. But I must insist that this repertoire requires a singer with a voice broken in by ‘grand opera’, a truly Wagnerian voice, a ‘Wotan’. Certain of Liszt’s songs require a very wide vocal range; they are all littered with very precise instructions to the singer (fast gesprochen, mit halber Stimme etc) and show a lot of freedom in the vocal line which means that the performer has to call on all his vocal and expressive resources. What’s more the piano score likes to think it’s an orchestral score, almost the first steps towards a symphonic poem: the use of tremolos to accompany the dramatic moments in the text clearly evoke the orchestral process. Liszt labelled these sonnets for the tenor voice, even if he subsequently composed a version for baritone voice. I am lucky to be able to perform these songs in a slightly deeper tonality that that of Liszt, especially adapted to my voice. Pfitzner’s songs, which I sing in the second part of the programme, also require a solid, powerful voice and the piano accompaniment is also very orchestral and strong.
Wolf, the second composer of the first half of the concert, was a huge admirer of Liszt. Some consider him the missing link between Liszt and Richard Strauss, who is present in the second half of your recital. Both Wolf and Liszt belong to the stream of Romanticism that accorded considerable importance to the mutual, cross-fertilisation of the different art forms.
We move, moreover, from the Sonetti del Petrarca to the Gedichte von Michelangelo, another figure from the Italian Renaissance, present just beneath the surface in the first half. You know that Wolf was nicknamed the ‘Wagner of Lied’ because of his admiration for the master of Bayreuth and his natural affinities with him, but, for me, he is the ‘Schubert of the 19th century’ on account of his strength and the incredible psychological development that we find in his lieder. Like Schubert, Wolf aspired to write operas in vain and was known for this, and I think he suffered from being considered just a Leidkomponist. However, in my eyes, each of his lieder is a small opera in miniature, polished to make us feel the slightest fluttering of the human soul. I hope that, in spite of the darkness that overshadowed the end of his life, he was aware of the admiration felt by his contemporaries. In his book The Road into the Open (Der Weg ins Freie) doesn’t Arthur Schnitzler offer him the most emotive homage when recalling the beauty of his lied Auf ein altes Bild?
You mention the pleasure of being your own conductor during a recital. Are you also your own director? Does the business of a recital involve a similar process as for an opera performance? Or do you consider, in the style of a romantic artist, that the form is of little import and that what really counts is the singularity of the performer’s delivery?
Honestly, I can say that I don’t feel the need for a staging and that I rely solely on the words and the music – the essence of the lied – in a pared down form which allows me to have a clear idea of what I want to transmit and share. I know that certain colleagues feel the need for some kind of dramatisation of the recital, but that’s not for me. I think that the underlying principle of a recital or an opera performance is the same, but we have to adjust our vocal approach to suit it, to explore other colours. One can also play with and juggle an infinite number of nuances, which the ‘battle’ with an orchestra comprising a hundred and twenty musicians doesn’t allow, and go much further in discovering the dynamic and the detail. However, I’m going to let you in on a secret because I intend to break with the pure tradition of the recital by keeping a surprise in store for the audience, a way of coming full circle and making a link between the different aspects of my recital. I’d like you to leave it at that, otherwise, my surprise won’t be a surprise!
One last question, not to be taken too seriously – of course you know about the famous quarrel amongst the German Romantics who pitted Schuman and Brahms against Liszt. The latter found an ardent defender in the person of Wolf to whom we owe the following words, “There is more intelligence and sensitivity in one clash of a cymbal from Liszt than in all the symphonies of Brahms put together”. Can we detect you taking sides in the first part of your recital?
No, (laughter) the last thing I want to do is to re-ignite a civil war on the stage of the Monnaie! Pfitzner is sometimes seen as a pariah to be avoided, for, sadly, he succumbed to the sirens of the darkest hour in the history of my country, but I think we have to make a distinction between the man and his political ideas on the one hand, and the importance of his work on the other. That is why I have chosen to perform some of his compositions which I find have a deep, profound beauty and which I would like to make known to the audience. By way of concluding, let me say that I want to champion and fight for the recital form itself.
Interview by Rebecca Marcy