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LA MONNAIE DE MUNT

On April 28th the French soprano Natalie Dessay will give a recital of French and German songs at La Monnaie. She will be accompanied by her regular pianist Phillippe Cassard. The programme reads like a series of musical portraits of women and divides nicely into a German and a French section.  

© Simon Fowler
‘PORTRAITS DE FEMMES’- PORTRAITS OF WOMEN – IS A HIGHLY TOPICAL THEME...

Yes, but it wasn’t planned that way. We put this programme together two years ago without any prompting from all the current discussions. There is such an abundance of songs on that topic that there is always material for a programme. And at La Monnaie’s request, most are French mélodies.

HOW DID YOUR COOPERATION WITH PIANIST PHILIPPE CASSARD COME ABOUT?

He phoned me because he had unpublished songs by Debussy which he was adamant he wanted to perform with me. At first I refused because I didn’t want to perform French mélodies. I find performing them very difficult. Putting together a programme, learning it, practising it and digesting it requires a huge amount of time and energy.

AND, INDEED, WE KNOW YOU BEST FOR YOUR OPERATIC PERFORMANCES. HOW DO YOU SET ABOUT A RECITAL?

I don’t agree with the view that a song is a mini-opera, compressed into three minutes! For me a song is something different. It’s a bit like a chanson; you have to stay as close to the words as possible, establish a rapport, an intimacy with the poem and the listener. With songs you always tell a story but you rarely embody a character. You yourself do the narrating: it is Natalie who narrates, who articulates the poem. It happens to be to music but it could equally well have been without music. Singing for the sake of singing doesn’t interest me. It never interested me in opera and it doesn’t interest me with the Lied or the mélodie either. I find it very difficult to speak about music, I can’t do it. I know how to make music, but it’s not something I can talk about. Except to say: “It is beautiful, come and listen!"

WHAT DO YOU NEED?

I need stories, something to say, things to recount. If a cycle goes on at great length about birds and landscapes, I get bored... As a rule, I have trouble with descriptions and with strophic songs because expressing the same thing six times doesn’t do it for me. I prefer through-composed songs, in French and German. I want something that goes somewhere, progresses. I find French texts which have been set to music more problematic because, to me at least, not all of them are interesting.

That will not be the case for Alte Weisen by Hans Pfitzner...

I bet not many people know those Pfitzners. It’s a cycle that is almost never sung, but it’s really worthwhile! The poems are by Gottfried Keller, a German-speaking Swiss, and it’s a very strange cycle with very refined piano writing, unexpected ornamentation, and it’s a woman who speaks, which is also unusual. A bit like Fiançailles pour rire, but then in German: snippets from the life of a liberated woman, who scoffs at men and takes charge of her own life. Until the last moment when she enters paradise and to moonlight harmonies describes what is happening.

Recorded by Charlotte Panouclias

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