Friday, May 18, 2012

In memoriam: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)

Remembering Fischer-Dieskau 28 May 1925 - 18 May 2012

“Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it.” (John Amis)

The world has lost one of its artistic titans, the German baritone, conductor, writer and painter Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He died just 10 days shy of his 87th birthday, exactly 101 years after the death of Gustav Mahler, one of dozens of composers whose recorded legacies are in this amazing artist’s debt. The British writer John Amis (whose quote appears in the NY Times obit) was not exaggerating. He was known in France as “le miracle Fischer-Dieskau.” He was equally fluent in English and Italian.

The most recorded artist in classical music history, he set the standard for the performance of Romantic art song, recording all the songs suitable for male voice by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss. In addition to Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, composers such as Gottfried von Einem, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Hans Werner Henze and Aribert Reimann wrote works specifically for him. He specialized in virtually every niche of the vocal repertoire, from Baroque masters like Schütz and Bach to the Viennese Classical school of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven through the avant-garde “Second Viennese School” of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. In addition to his standard-defining performances of German lieder, he sang French music of Faure, Debussy and Ravel with "sensibilité." He set the bar for neglected and difficult 20th century works by Hindemith, Martin, Pfitzner, Reger and Shostakovich.

His mastery of 19th-century art song and 20th-century “specialty” repertoire overshadowed his magnificent work for the operatic stage. An imposing presence, he was a gifted actor and his early operatic performances from the ‘50’s belie the popular assumption that opera singers of the “golden era” only knew, as it were, how to “park and bark.” From Mozart to Strauss and Wagner his interpretation of roles such as Don Giovanni, Mandryka (Arabella), Wolfram, Amfortas and Kurwenal (Tannhäuser, Parsifal and Tristan, respectively) was exemplary. And his interpretations of Verdi and Puccini, whether sung in Italian or German, were vocally stellar and stylistically informed.

What I try to instill in students and young artists is an appreciation for the vital role continuity plays in our ever-evolving artform. Vitality, evolution and innovation from within a genre require a deep appreciation of its tradition. As I mention below in writing about Wagner, "interpretation" is predicated upon exemplary execution. You have to know the notes before you can do anything with them. An entire generation of artists with immediate connections to the 19th-century is available to us thanks to the technology of recordings. Fischer-Dieskau studied with Weissenborn, who studied with Muller, who studied with Stockhausen, who was a collaborator of Clara Schumann’s. He passes on to us a connection with the creators of the most beloved period in classical music, the 19th century, "Der Romantik." He is a bridge from the past across the 20th century to today, a Janus-faced visionary whose importance it is impossible to overstate.

With an impeccable technique, the gift of youth (his performing career spanned nearly 50 years), a probing intellect, an open mind and a sensuality finely tuned to the lyrical arts of poetry, painting and theatre, Dieter (or Fi-Di) was a miracle, and thanks to his astonishing recorded legacy, will remain so. He cited his love of poetry as the window opening unto the hitherto neglected vocal miniature, the art song. I continue to be confused by singers who claim to have little interest in poetry. Fischer-Dieskau insisted his students study not only the poetry of the specific songs they were to perform, but the entire contextual world of composer and poet. The creator's works in other media (Schumann's piano music and Goethe's novels, for example) are as important as related genres in contemporary and historical periods. To sing Schumann's Dichterliebe, (A Poet's Love), one needs to know not only about Schumann's and Heine's life and works, but the artworks described in the poetry and contemporary with it, German history and its landscapes, and the classical references to myth and fairy tale imbedded like clues across the verses. Fischer-Dieskau was a complete artist, and his polymath approach to his work as a performer and teacher is an example to emulate.

It’s difficult to know where to begin in recommending an entry point for the novitiate. His recorded world is the epitome of an "embarrassment of riches." Deutsche Grammophon recently issued an excellent 2-disc DVD set of memorable excerpts from the stage and recital hall. Britten’s War Requiem, written as an act of reconciliation for the re-dedication of the WWII-ravaged Coventry Cathedral (fifty years ago this month), is one of the great works of the previous century and the first of several works its composer wrote expressly for the baritone. Fischer-Dieskau is one of a handful of artists where one must specify when citing a favorite version. Which Winterreise? The early one with Demus? Or Moore? Or the wise but youthful 62-year old with the equally gifted Alfred Brendel? My favorite Schubert recording – of the literally dozens he made – is from a live recital at the Aldeburgh Festival with Benjamin Britten as the pianist. The chemistry between the performers is palpable even across the secondary medium of a 40 year-old archival recording.

(one of many such watercolors by Fischer-Dieskau)

An alchemical marriage takes place when technique (discipline, science) and inspiration (art) unite. This fusion of energies sparks the inimitable power of re-creation, which is the art of performance. Though his studio recordings are the foundation of his legacy, listen to Fischer-Dieskau in a live recording. One of my “desert island” discs is a live version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a work Fi-Di recorded no fewer than three times, with Bernstein, Krips and Keilburth. It is the latter that captures the singer in Mahler’s incredible score in that ideal marriage. But don’t take it from me, just have a listen.

(portrait of the artist’s wife, soprano Julia Varady)

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