Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at 80 (Gramophone, July 2005) by John Tolansky
‘My mother loved to go to recitals, and one day she took me to a whole concert of Reger songs in the Beethoven-Saal in Berlin with the contralto Emmy Leisner. I remember a point during the programme when I said to myself: I also want to do this.’ That impulse by a youthful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave the world an artist who many would claim to be the greatest song interpreter of all time. Now, as he celebrates his 80th birthday, the great German baritone recalls that turning point in his life.
‘I was very moved, and Mme Leisner even noticed me in the front row looking quite glowing. Afterwards my mother and I went to see her and she said “You must become a singer – but you must not come to me, you must have a male teacher”. She recommended I go to Georg A Walter so I began to have singing lessons with him. I stayed with him for about a year, but I always wanted to find out much more about the really fundamental techniques of singing, so in 1943 I went to Hermann Weissenborn, and he was by far the most important and in fact really the only teacher I ever had. His guidance was invaluable, most especially in respect of melodic facility and phrasing, and I continued to study with him right up until his death in 1959.’
In January 1943, not long before Fischer-Dieskau started lessons with Weissenborn, he had already given his first performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, a particularly enormous challenge for a 17-year-old. And just five years later this song-cycle was to be one of two major catalysts in his early rise to fame. After being called up by the German army and becoming a prisoner of war with the Americans in Italy, it was one of the first works he performed for the RIAS radio station in American-occupied West Berlin. He had already made a strong impression giving recitals in the prisoner-of-war camp, from which he had recently been released; in January 1948 his broadcast of Winterreise was heard far and wide and created a major reaction – and not only in Germany (it can still be heard today, as a tape was finally issued on CD some years ago on the Archipel label).
Before long, word was around that a remarkable new baritone was at large. Later that year the influential stage director and manager of all of West Berlin’s opera houses, Heinz Tietjen, engaged him to sing Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Berlin Städtische Oper. That became the second catalyst in accelerating his rise to major fame. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was soon celebrated for the bloom, radiance and great expressiveness of his voice, his outstanding command of legato line and the dramatic power of his interpretations. The following year, 1949, he began what was to become one of the most voluminous and comprehensive recording careers of any classical artist.
In a singing career spanning 45 years, from 1948 to 1993, Fischer-Dieskau’s impeccable technique, flawless intonation and perfection of tone production were merely the conduits for the remarkable range of expression, colour and feeling he brought to his vast repertoire of nearly 3000 songs, hundreds of cantatas and oratorios and more than 100 operatic roles. In Lieder particularly, his dramatic incisiveness, lyrical expressiveness, legato phrasing and vivid projection of words have been yardsticks for two generations of singers after him. In opera, his searching intellect and imposing presence made him the choice of directors such as Luchino Visconti, Carl Ebert, August Everding, Günther Rennert and Jean-Pierre Ponelle, and conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Karl Böhm and Carlos Kleiber. In music of his own time, his vocal mastery and artistic imagination especially inspired composers such as Stravinsky, Henze, Reimann and Britten, who invited him to sing in the world premiere of his War Requiem. And in later years his meticulous musicianship and deep erudition increasingly impressed symphony orchestras as he developed a new career as a conductor.
It was in the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann particularly that Fischer-Dieskau achieved some of his earliest international acclaim. He brought them alive with theatrical characterisation and a poetic beauty that seemed to flow effortlessly from his remarkable breath control and his meticulous projection of words. In the dramatic songs he could create frightening suspense with the controlled dynamic reserve in his voice, creating lines that seamlessly grew from the quietest whisper to intense declamation, while in the lyrical songs he created a rapt and tranquil atmosphere with the sustained tenderness of his singing. Winterreise made an especially remarkable impression when his first studio recording was released in 1955. Many people marvelled that someone so young – he was just 30 – could perform with such depth and psychological power. However, for Fischer-Dieskau it was natural and appropriate to sing this music at that early age.
‘Schubert himself was, of course, not an old man when he composed Winterreise, so I don’t think the music is associated with old age in any way. If you are convinced by the sounds you evoke when you sit at the piano and play through the score – even without the voice, which I did first before I started to sing the music – you are deeply affected, whatever age you are. And then when you come to the poems, it is a young man who is speaking. Also, I must say I do not feel you need necessarily have had the same experience yourself to understand Winterreise. I am sure Schubert himself didn’t suffer everything he describes in the cycle. Yes, he was very much in love with a girl he wasn’t able to marry because her parents wanted her to have a wealthy husband, and this pained him of course, but I feel he wrote Winterreise because he was so profoundly affected by Müller’s poems rather than because of anything in his own life.’
Including a few unofficial CDs, there are at least nine recordings of Winterreise by Fischer-Dieskau in the catalogue, with a couple more emerging from the archives this year. They span most of his singing career – proof that he did in fact perform Winterreise when he was no longer young, but also that he constantly felt compelled to revisit the work. ‘If I were able to perform it now, I would right away attempt to interpret it yet again. The music is so rich and so unreachable in a way that you can encircle the work as often as you want – you will never reach the centre. I tried to do so – sometimes I got a little closer to the essence of the work, but not very often and never completely.’
A disarming statement from a legendary interpreter of Winterreise! His performances of this and all the Lieder of Schubert have exerted a striking influence on other singers and also accompanists from the time of his own generation up to the present, as one of the world’s foremost accompanists, Graham Johnson, observes: ‘He has so dominated the entire performing life of my generation, always having been there at the summit, from the time I began to think about Lieder as a possibility in my work until now. He is by nature an encyclopaedist, and he placed before us fine performances that immediately bent our ears over the comprehensive Lieder oeuvre of a wide range of composers – all Schubert, all Schumann, all Brahms, all Wolf. He made us aware that one had this huge treasure-trove of material, and he went through it with the type of zeal of a Domesday Book-chronicler, bringing to it his intelligence, his musicality and his desire to paint a huge, overall, historical picture.’
The young German baritone Christian Gerhaher is one of today’s singers who acknowledges Fischer-Dieskau’s vital influence. Virtually two generations down the line, he of course heard his famous recordings, but he also came face to face with him in some masterclasses. His admiration is boundless. ‘He was the one who elevated Lieder singing into a kind of vocal chamber music. And the sheer scale of his achievement is extraordinary. He made so many recordings, and even if some of the later ones were a bit mannered, most were technically so good and beautiful that he was altogether outstanding. I do not think anyone will reach the amount of work he did in his life – it would be a lifetime’s work just to attempt to match it.’
That achievement has historical connotations, too. Not only were there the groundbreaking editions of virtually the complete Lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf, there were also forays into the music of Mahler at a time when his work was widely held to be recherché. When he proposed to Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was a deeply valued mentor and considerable artistic influence on him in his early years, that they perform the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, he had to talk the great conductor into it. ‘He was quite shocked at first because he did not like Mahler at all. Although he had conducted the Wayfarer songs much earlier, and even the Third and Fourth Symphonies on one or two occasions, he always said “Maybe the first two movements of the First Symphony, but after that I cannot”. In due course he did accept my suggestion and we performed them with the Vienna Philharmonic at Salzburg in 1951 and later recorded them with the Philharmonia Orchestra. At that time he was far from being alone in his aversion to Mahler – there were many people who could not appreciate him one bit. I was really the first singer to perform complete Mahler Lieder programmes and I was one of the few people who sang most of the orchestral songs in those days.’
Fischer-Dieskau went on to record most of the Mahler songs with some of the greatest conductors of the day, including Barenboim, Bernstein, Böhm, Kubelík, Sawallisch and Szell, and on occasion with Barenboim, Bernstein and Sawallisch as piano accompanists. Viewing them as a whole just for now, one of the most remarkable attributes is the immense range of vocal, dynamic and expressive contrasts – from the intimate, delicate simplicity of ‘Ich atmet einen linden Duft’ in the Rückert-Lieder, conducted by Böhm to the macabre, demonic irony of ‘Revelge’ in the Knaben Wunderhorn songs, in the classic version conducted by George Szell.
It was this kind of masterly projection of the text’s atmosphere, as well as its meaning, that so strongly appealed to a composer who himself was greatly influenced by Mahler: for many years Fischer-Dieskau was one of Benjamin Britten’s favourite artists, and the composer invited him to sing the baritone part in the world premiere (and subsequent recording) of the War Requiem. The premiere in Coventry Cathedral in 1962 was the first time they met, and subsequently they performed together on many memorable occasions, interpreting a wide range of composers’ works with Britten both as conductor and pianist. ‘His approach to conducting and playing the piano was so different. There was somehow more fantasy when he played the piano but, on the other hand, he absolutely achieved his intention with the orchestra. I have never forgotten how he did this with Schumann’s Scenes from Faust, a very difficult work to conduct. I have sung this work very often since but I have never performed it again in the way I did with Britten conducting. This love he brought to everything he did was of a very special, rare quality. I can still see him holding up the score of the Scenes from Faust to the audience as they were raving at the end of the performance, as though saying “Look at this – Schumann!”.’
Britten played the piano for Fischer-Dieskau when they performed and recorded the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, which the composer wrote for him in 1965, shortly after the death of the baritone’s first wife, Irmgard Poppen. He was one of Fischer-Diesaku’s favourite accompanists, along with Gerald Moore, Jörg Demus, Karl Engel and Hartmut Höll, as well as the aforementioned conductors. Höll accompanied him in a recording of rarely performed songs by Grieg, made in 1984 when Fischer-Dieskau was 59 and still displaying an extraordinary range of expression, dynamics and colour. He magically captured the Nordic atmosphere and poignant intimacy that are the essence of Grieg, even in these settings of predominantly German texts. ‘Grieg himself had a very fine feeling for the German language, so it was natural for him to set these poems in his own, personal musical style. I love the simplicity of these songs – like most of what he wrote they are very close to the uncomplicated folkloric element that was very strong in him. There are, of course, some exceptions when he imitates Wagner’s Valkyrie sonorities; in fact, some of the Heine songs are a little thicker in texture, really mixing up many accompanying voices. But most of the time he is wonderfully clear and writes in his own unmistakably personal way.’
Two years after recording the Grieg songs, Hartmut Höll again accompanied Fischer-Dieskau in a recording of rarely performed songs by Wolf, originally made for Claves and subsequently licensed to Brilliant Classics. They are a fascinating addendum to his almost exhaustive Wolf recordings with Daniel Barenboim, where the two create an often spellbinding atmosphere in songs that can still sound extraordinarily novel and strange even today. Fischer-Dieskau recognises Wagner’s influence in Wolf’s life, but insists it is minimal in his music. ‘He would not have liked to have been called a Wagnerian at all. He admired Wagner above all, but I think he found his own language by obeying the melody he heard in the words themselves, as opposed to letting the voices accompany the thematic material in the orchestra, as Wagner did. It was the other way round from Wagner – in the words he found the melody, in a way like Schubert really, who found the melody after reading the words many times, although of course Wolf’s declamatory language is so different. And when he wrote his own opera, Der Corregidor, this was very much the same procedure.’
Der Corregidor is a work Fischer-Dieskau has championed in an extensive operatic repertoire that ranges from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni up to Reimann’s Lear and Messiaen’s Saint Francois d’Assise. He was maybe a more controversial artist in opera than in Lieder but that is not meant as a pejorative observation: on the contrary, if he had his critics he nevertheless offered interpretations that could often be challengingly thought-provoking and dramatically powerful.
One of his most famous and acclaimed stage roles was Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in which he particularly stressed a disturbed element in the role, in contrast to the general ambience of the work. ‘Sachs is a very complex character. There is a constant juxtaposition of opposites in him: the sarcasm and wit in the sharp remarks he makes so much of the time, and then so much melancholy as he keeps thinking about the world and all the evil things that are there – “Wahn, wahn, überall wahn!” The combination of all this makes him almost a sinister figure. But on the other hand, he has sufficient humour to enable him to be above all the things and people that upset him so much. After all, everyone admires him so much because he has such a dignity and philosophy. So he is very complicated, with many colours –most of the time I hear Sachs sung with thick tone all the way through so that there is no feeling of characterisation, which is so important. Certainly Wagner conveyed this feeling when he read just the words of this opera for audiences, which he did sometimes.’
Fischer-Dieskau was Georg Solti’s and Decca’s choice as Gunther in the famous ‘Golden Ring’ recording and, a few years later, Herbert von Karajan invited him to sing Wotan in Das Rheingold in his recording of the work. Karajan’s at times almost chamber-opera approach to the Ring provoked mixed reactions initially, but in time it became an influential reading, which Pierre Boulez among other Wagnerians has acknowledged. Karajan knew precisely how to satisfy himself with his casting, and his choice of Fischer-Dieskau as a lyrical but authoritative Wotan ideally suited his concept of the role. There was a rapport between the two artists.
‘He came to my house and we had a long piano rehearsal of Wotan together. He did not say very much, but the few sentences he spoke were enough for me to know just what he wanted. He conveyed so much with his conducting that he did not need to say very much – you saw what he did and you immediately understood his intentions.’
Another of Fischer-Dieskau’s most celebrated operatic roles in the German-language repertoire was Mandryka in Richard Strauss’s Arabella, with which he made his Covent Garden debut in 1965. He was also famed for his powerful although sometimes more controversial interpretations in some of Verdi’s greatest baritone roles. He himself has said that it is not easy for a German singer to perform opera in Italian, or for that matter French, and there are some who have expressed reservations about his Verdi performances. But the audience at La Scala loved his Rigoletto and there are many who have been deeply affected by his searching interpretations in Italian and several other non-Germanic operas. Baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore feels that Fischer-Dieskau’s Iago in Verdi’s Otello is especially illuminating. ‘The recording he made with Sir John Barbirolli is very interesting indeed. It may not be the most authentic Italian sound, but the musical intelligence that he brings to the role really does make it live in ways that I have not experienced in other interpretations.’
In that recording of Otello, with James McCracken in the title-role and Gwyneth Jones as Desdemona, Fischer-Dieskau and the entire cast were undoubtedly affected by some of Sir John Barbirolli’s spacious tempi, which are particularly slow in Iago’s fabricated account to Otello in Act 2 of Cassio calling out Desdemona’s name in his sleep, ‘Era la notte’. Notwithstanding that, Fischer-Dieskau’s Iago is remarkably effective here, meticulously observing Verdi’s markings. ‘It has to be whispered and sung at the same time,’ Fischer-Dieskau says. ‘It has a completely convincing influence on Otello, and yet at the same time Iago is expressing his own secret feelings about Desdemona. You have to combine all this in one short piece and perform as quietly as possible – just as Verdi has indicated.’ A challenging idea about Iago’s private feelings, and certainly the almost hauntingly dreamy way that Fischer-Dieskau sings this dramatically crucial aria is psychologically striking and entirely convincing.
‘Fischer-Dieskau, in everything he did, had something to say and contribute to the general picture,’ Graham Johnson says. ‘For instance, he recorded Poulenc’s Le bal masqué, and it’s very interesting indeed – it may not be definitive in the way that Pierre Bernac’s performance with the composer is, but I feel that be it Poulenc, Verdi or whoever, the repertoire is bigger than just its authentic roots and too big to avoid the contribution that Fischer-Dieskau has made. The curiosity and passion for music that surrounded the margins of his central, German-speaking repertoire, such as Fauré or Ravel, in a sense contributed to his interpretation of his main work – for instance, the opening song of Berg’s Seven Early Songs has a Debussian texture, and Fischer-Dieskau even wrote a book about Debussy. Of course, an artist who is born and bred in the country of a composer’s origin has an authority that is difficult for people who have come from outside that environment to grasp immediately, but great art does not belong to any one nation, and it is wonderful that Fischer-Dieskau took such trouble with such a wide range of repertoire.’
Fischer-Dieskau’s curiosity and passion certainly covered an exceptionally wide geographical and ethnic gamut. He took immense trouble to familiarise himself with the colours and musical speech-language of Hungary when he took on the title-role in Bartók’s masterpiece, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, an opera he deeply admires.
‘In a way it is almost an expressionistic work, even though it was composed before the time of expressionism as we know it, mixed with so many elements of folk music that when you interpret it you have to know exactly how the Hungarians sing their songs, how they perform with all their many subtle rubati – and if you don’t do that, the piece is lost. I remember so well when Antal Dorati conducted Bluebeard in Paris, he came to me and was very concerned to explain all the many places where there is rubato, and he was really quite happy that I knew it and could do it for him. As regards both Bluebeard and Judith, with their feelings of mistrust and guilt, I sometimes think of Bartók’s attitude to his second wife when they had a contract before they went to marry and she had to sign “I will not think of another man, I will not say a word against this marriage” and so on – like a sick kind of dictatorship born out of such insecurity. Maybe there is a subconscious, unintentional autobiographical element in Bluebeard there. Who knows?’
Singing Judith on Fischer-Dieskau’s second recording of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, made in 1979, is his fourth wife, the superb soprano Julia Varady, with whom, in stark contrast to Bluebeard and Judith, he is most profoundly and devotedly happy. As well as having performed together many times on the operatic stage, they have successfully collaborated from time to time when Fischer-Dieskau has accompanied her as a conductor. Some recordings of their work together on the Orfeo label are testimony to his considerable conducting talent, especially in notably demanding Verdi arias where he accompanies with great insight and subtlety, coaxing from the orchestra playing of impressive expression, flexibility and precision.
As he turns 80, Fischer-Dieskau abounds with energy and an undiminished passion for the enormous range of music he has loved and performed with such command, and which he now hands down to the young students fortunate enough to take lessons with him. In wishing him many happy returns, we must salute his unique contribution to our experience and understanding of music – an enrichment that is penetratingly summed up by Graham Johnson: ‘If we try to imagine the world of song without Fischer-Dieskau, almost all the achievements that have come after him would not have been possible without the ground-base that allowed them to be launched. He gave us a new model for Lieder singing, and whether people have agreed with or diverged from his interpretations, that has been his greatest gift to the entire post-war generation.’