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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Günther Groissböck

The gloom and doom of a singular bass

Markus Thiel
Reading time
5 min.

No kitsch or pseudo-biedermeier for Günther Groissböck. The Austrian power bass makes his debut at La Monnaie with Nicht Wiedersehen! (Never to Meet Again), a true 'recital noir' centered around the gloom and doom of the late-Romantic Lied repertoire. Cause for a conversation about the importance of artistic integrity, the historical lessons we can learn from Mahler's songs and at least one opinion he shares with Edita Gruberova.

You have compiled a particularly dark to nihilistic program for your La Monnaie debut. Typical Günther Groissböck?

Beginning with Schubert’s Winterreise and Schwanengesang and continuing with the Herztod CD I put together myself, my song programmes indeed often turn out like this. It is always also a question of which repertoire is particularly suitable for low voices. In a London concert, I sang the second part of Nicht Wiedersehen! once and noticed how it grabbed people. As a programme experiment, so to speak, a stringent, logical and sombre soldier song cycle was created.

Isn't it difficult to confront the listeners with this fierce literature in today's time of crisis?

I am already aware that I have to get people involved somewhere and it can be quite problematic to do it where they might not necessarily want to become involved. However, I find the statements these pieces make very important. Perhaps I am a discontinued model - but in this respect, one of conviction. We have to be careful in the arts to ensure that, after great times of crisis, we don't just do trivial, easy-to-digest things à la the 25th anniversary CD with cheesy Christmas songs. So no new pseudo-Biedermeier, as happened, for example, after the Second World War. We have to stay with the content.

Among other things, you will sing Strauss's Zueignung (Dedication), a popular, light encore piece. A shadow is now somehow falling on that.

In general, it's fascinating with songs that they are illuminated in a new way depending on the vocal register and often completely new perspectives open up. When I hear Zueignung, I always have Jessye Norman with her classic diva encore in my mind and my ears. But another approach is also possible. And the listener has the opportunity to choose what they feel is right and appropriate.

According to that, do you also have a black soul?

If you like: yes. I sometimes sing funny roles, like the Rosenkavalier-Ochs or Kezal in the The Bartered Bride. And if I have something like that in my calendar, I need some kind of counterbalance - so that my other side can be depicted. Nicht Wiedersehen! was a kind of self-cleansing process. So, some things have a very personal reference. In this respect, it is beautiful if you can use the song for yourself constructively, artistically and cathartically.

Self-cleansing: What was there that had to go?

All kinds of experiences, adventures, disappointments. Everything that catches up with you in everyday life and that you have to face. This music also offers a kind of therapeutic possibility.

Edita Gruberova always said that without singing she would have had to see a psychotherapist all the time.

It's the same with me. I could become a challenging case for society if I did not pursue this profession (laughs). All joking aside: we all have things inside of us that have to come out. With Mahler and Strauss, we are also immersed in a time that certainly has parallels to the present. In addition, there is the supra-temporal message of great art.

Can a non-Austrian or non-German also feel the messages from Mahler and Strauss?

Yes. I think it's a fundamental soul thing. Of course, if you grew up in the area of Mahler or Bruckner, you are somehow closer to it. It is not only about the immediacy of experience, but also about images, impressions, landscapes that the composer has seen, felt and smelled.

How directly do these emotions need to be portrayed? How important is distance in the interpretation of a dark song in particular?

It is clear that people will be touched. That's why you need so much distance, so that you can still function as a singer. That is very difficult, especially with pieces like Befreit (Freed) by Strauss, this farewell song, because you are drawn into it incredibly quickly. Normally it is like this with a CD recording: You do two or three takes and first listen to them for cleanliness, i.e. intonation, rhythm and so on. In the case of Nicht Wiedersehen! we saw that there was a very good version of a song. But then I asked the recording director: "Do we have anything that is a bit dirtier, that hurts a bit more? Something more tortured?" I always prefer the version that is most immediate and authentic, but of course still technically justifiable.

During the pandemic, you have expressed your anger about the results of some of the safety measures. Is that wrath gone?

Ugly chasms opened up during that time, even among colleagues. More opportunism, cowardice and denunciation than one would ever have thought possible. On the other hand, I have learned in the past two and a half years that I have to concentrate on what I am probably good at on why I was probably put on this earth. Then you have to get out of the way of certain struggles and perhaps adopt new perspectives. Also, as far as one's own points of view are concerned: Where was one too brash? Too clear? Or was the opinion expressed too early? In some areas it becomes almost philosophical: For example, what do people accept as reality? What do I have to accept because people think it is reality? Those were all pretty tough tests. Also with regard to one's own perception.

Whereby the occupation with songs and opera pieces, with model conflicts, so to speak, could help.

Sure. In the Mahler songs, for example, one always feels the enthusiasm of the people before the First World War, where one wonders about the distance of time: How could it actually come to this? A difficult, highly complex matter. As an artist, one of my tasks is to encourage people to think for themselves, and especially to feel for themselves. We are, so to speak, responsible for extended feeling.