Few singers had such an intense relationship with a piece of music, both in the concert-hall and on record, as the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau had with Schubert’s song-cycle Winterreise. Commercially, he recorded the work seven times: in 1955 with Gerald Moore for HMV, then in 1963 they returned to the studio for same label. In 1966 he and Jörg Demus recorded it for DG. In 1972, he was re-joined by Gerald Moore, again for DG. A third DG recording came in 1980 when Fischer-Dieskau was partnered by Daniel Barenboim. In 1986, Fischer-Dieskau teamed up with another ‘concert’ pianist: Alfred Brendel. A final version – with Murray Perahia – was recorded by Sony Classical in 1990 just after the baritone turned 65. There are, of course, numerous live recordings, performances not originally planned for release on disc: these include one from 1948 with Klaus Billing, a 1952 performance with Hermann Reutter and one the following year with Hertha Klust.
When Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made his first commercial recording of Winterreise with Gerald Moore in 1955, he was no stranger to the work: three ‘off-air’ performances have since come to light, including one masterminded by Elsa Schiller. And his partner (in this work, and with this pianist, I hesitate to use the word accompanist) had a long history with the work. Moore had actually only recorded Winterreise the year before, with Hans Hotter. And when Alec Robertson reviewed the 1955 HMV disc, this was the comparison he used, and often in the younger singer’s favour. Already, Fischer-Dieskau’s care with the text was singled out: 'His articulation, also, is crisper than Hotter’s and he has a very special sense of verbal values and a wide command of tone-colour.' By 1963, Fischer-Dieskau and Moore had revisited their interpretation: 'Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation remains the most dramatic of all, but he has now refined it, made it more searching and eliminated unnecessary verbal point making,' according to Alec Robertson – who again had Hotter as a comparison, this time with Erik Werba at the piano. And to complicate things there was a simultaneous new version from Gérard Souzay: his version, alas, was hampered by an indifferent recording. Desmond Shawe-Taylor addressed all three new recordings of the work in his Quarterly Retrospect in January 1964. He noted that Souzay had the most beautiful voice of the three baritones but he was more troubled my something was creeping into F-D’s performance: 'it is some of his louder outbursts that still disturb me. Of course, loudness, even harshness, is often required by the music; but there are times, especially in the earlier songs, where Fischer-Dieskau begins to force, to do what musicians call "singing through the tone".' Forced to decide between the three he concluded: 'I feel that Fischer-Dieskau and Moore have a slight edge over the others – though there is also that other sort of ‘edge’ to be remembered. And I am not sure that Souzay’s more lyrical and relaxed style might not, after all, wear better in the long run. This is, I repeat, a perplexing issue, not at all a straight one. All three singers are fine artists, and great music allows of more than one style of interpretation.'
Only another three years passed before F-D recorded the cycle again. It was his first for DG and this time his partner was Jörg Demus. AR, again reviewing the disc, was not so taken with this new partnership: 'There is much to admire in Jörg Demus’s playing but it is not of [Moore’s] calibre, tiresome as it may seem to have to go on saying this.' Of the singer’s approach he felt that in 1963 he’d 'notably fined down some dramatic outbursts and eliminated some unnecessary verbal pointmaking, but still presented a more virile, if tragic, figure than Hotter or Souzay, and, more recently Pears, gave us. He has now gone further in these directions, but the differences are so slight or subtle as to make it impossible to list them except by giving chapter and verse for each one'. Which he didn’t for lack of space! Interestingly of all of F-D's commercial recordings of Winterreise, this is the one which was 'upgraded' by a later generation of critics, receiving warm praise from John Warrack, Alan Blyth and John Steane.
The next recording – a second for DG – came in 1972 and saw F-D reunited with Gerald Moore. Moore had retired from live performance though he continued to record until 1975 (when he was 76). The impetus for this latest return to Schubert’s great cycle was the mammoth Schubrt Lieder Edition the baritone had undertaken for DG, and needless to say he had to return to the three cycles which, this time, were released together in a four-LP set. 'Of the three song-sets,' wrote William Mann who had taken over much of the Lieder reviewing from AR, 'Winterreise gets the strongest performance; it is the masterpiece, surely the song-cycle that lasts longest and offers most interpretative possibilities of any in the current repertory. In the third verse of "Gute Nacht" the vocal line and lovely phrasing, and the emotional involvement, captivates the sensitive ear; the piano postlude is exemplary.' And here was example when time brought many benefits: 'when this new reading is compared with that of 1963, Fischer-Dieskau’s voice sounds more natural, eagerly expressive, more resonant and Gerald Moore’s pianism more eloquent in the earlier version.'
In 1980 came the first recording with a pianist who more usually took the platform alone, or as a concerto soloist, Daniel Barenboim, though he was already an experienced accompanist by now. 'What strikes one immediately about the new version,' wrote Alan Blyth, Gramophone’s new ‘Lieder man’, 'are not any changes in Fischer-Dieskau’s reading as such, although there are some, but the arresting, creative quality of Barenboim’s piano-playing. I found myself time and again listening to what he was doing with the accompaniments, not because they were in any way too obtrusive but because he was throwing new light on the song concerned.' AB saw this as a totally revelatory partnership: 'I think Fischer-Dieskau has been inspired by his partner to re-live the text with an even greater immediacy, if that’s possible, than in the past.' The recording, in AB’s concluding words, was deemed to be 'the most compelling and deeply considered interpretation of this endlessly fascinating work yet to be recorded.' Praise indeed – but that wasn’t the end of the F-D Winterreise road!
No doubt stimulated by his encounters with great pianists (and Richter and Eschenbach had by now partnered him), he teamed up with Alfred Brendel for a recording of the work in 1986 for Philips. AB was slightly nervous of what to expect having heard F-D recently in concert: 'It cannot be overlooked here in several climaxes where he goes through his now frayed tone.' But – 'I feel there is something so special about the partnership that the frailties have to be forgotten in appreciation of the sustained inspiration of the whole.' Once again, a great pianist as partner inspired the singer to extraordinary heights: 'The reading is basically the same in tempo and phrasing, but below the surface there seems even more concentration on the plight of the forsaken lover. It remains an intensely subjective performance, peppered with spat-out consonants and pointed emphases, but the detail, at speeds perhaps a shade quicker than in the past, are here marvellously integrated into the whole.' It was some years later that an extraordinary filmed collaboration between F-D and Brendel emerged: recorded in 1979 it certainly impressed Alan Blyth.
Fischer-Dieskau’s last recording (1990) found him working again with a celebrated solo pianist, Murray Perahia, not someone you’d immediately expect to find in the role, even though he’d worked with Peter Pears. Alan Blyth, engaging with his performance by the 65-year-old singer has serious misgivings: 'I regret to say that I found listening to it, in spite of the undimmed powers of intellect and emotion still in place, a painful and dispiriting experience that I have no wish to dissect.' In fact, it sent him back to F-D’s earlier recordings and prompted a revaluation of the Demus set, and a plea to DG to reissue it (and the Barenboim version).