Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I've been thinking more, lately, of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who passed away on 18 May, just shy of his 87th birthday. He was a giant among classical baritones and simply the best singer of lieder, especially Schubert, ever. The statistics are hard to nail, but he may be the most recorded artist in classical music history - around twice as many recordings as Placido Domingo, to give you an idea. He is the sound of many private moments in my life, a source of solace and of inspiration.

During some periods of his career he was criticised for being 'mannered'. But this was because he sang like an actor. Sometimes he would inflect individual syllables in the most surprising, but revelatory, way. He could change both the shape of the syllable and the texture of the musical note so that there was a unity of meaning mostly unknown until then. This was not the lieder singing of a Richard Tauber, and some didn't like it. This was singing full of sharp insight and endless dramatic nuance. He could make a mediocre lyric carry cosmic resonance. His was a rich and complex baritone, but he still sang as if he were speaking. His communication was direct. The French critic Roland Barthes wrote a famous essay called “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) in which he deplored “the perfection of his cultured expressiveness”. I adored the nature of this expressiveness. This was singing that made you think. 

He wasn't perfect. He sang in six or seven languages, but wasn't ever quite at full-throated ease in anything other than German. Benjamin Britten, who invited Fischer-Dieskau to sing in the historic premiere of his War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral in 1962, called him a 'school bully', a description, though, that probably says more about the school boy-obsessed Britten than Fischer-Dieskau. He worked hard at opera, and did have some truly great successes in works such as Reimann's Lear, the Count in The Marriage of Figaro and, strangely enough, Verdi's Falstaff, but it wasn't his natural habitat. He refused to wear Papageno’s silly feathers in The Magic Flute, and who can blame him. 

I love the story of his retirement. Fischer-Dieskau quite suddenly retired from singing in 1992 after a performance of Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. At the last performance, he realised that the opera's final words - 'Tutto nel mondo eburla' ('All the world’s a joke') - were the perfect note on which to exit. He cancelled all future engagements the next morning. He pursued a full retirement as teacher, author and conductor. He wrote brilliant books, and not only in retirement, about the music he sang.

He had a special relationship with Schubert's Die Winterreise. He first performed it as an American prisoner of war in Italy during WWII. He recorded it eight times, I think. He was like that - his career was marked with constant, considered and sometimes conspicuous reinterpretation. I have two of these recordings: the 1972 recording with that great accompanianist Gerald Moore and the 1986 with Alfred Brendel. Below, I've posted the final song in the cycle with Brendel, from a film made of the full cycle in Berlin in 1979. Ridiculously good, this is the highest level of artistry: interpretative genius. 

When I was young, I wanted to be an opera singer. I did OK, but then discovered theatre. I have long dreamt of singing this cycle, though at a ridiculously lower level of artistry. In my mind's ear, though, I sing it just like this.  

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