LIEDER AND LIEDER SINGERS
There has been very little discussion in this Forum of the great art form of the Lied, and of the great Lieder singers, past and present. The sad death on Friday of the ‘King of Lieder Singers’, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, seems the perfect opportunity for starting such a thread. So here goes. I’ll lead off with some of my earliest and most abiding experiences.
And how better to start than with DF-D. I first heard so many of the greatest Lieder in his recordings. First and foremost, one of the greatest of all song-cycles, and the one he was most associated with, Die Winterreise. The music is for me inseparable from his first EMI recording, issued in 1955, from which I learned the work. But , astonishingly, within 12 months, EMI had issued records not only DF-D, but also Souzay and Hotter in this work. All of them amongst my favourite Lieder singers of all time.
To divert for a moment, in an interesting documentary DVD about ‘The Art of the Violin’, Itzakh Perlman comments about the great violinists of the past (Heifetz, Elman, Kreisler, Menuhin etc.) as to just ‘how completely distinctively different each one sounds’. The same can be said for these three great singers. Beautiful, instantly recognisable voices, but also superb interpreters of Lieder. The smallest voice, the most lyrical was Souzay, Hotter, with his Wotanesque reserves of power but able to fine his voice down to perfection. Both of these singers followed from an earlier tradition of Lieder singing where line was more important than detailed observance of the text. With DF-D all that changed. His constant probing of the text brought so many insights that had hardly been explored before. This approach has not been without controversy, but at his best, more than any other lieder singer, he seemed to manage to have the best of both worlds. And his voice in its prime was the most beautiful of all of them. Finally, his incredible breath control. I can never forget the last line of Wandrers Nachtlied (Warte nur, warte nur, balde ruhest du auch), all in one perfectly controlled arch, and in one breath.
Next, the great sopranos. For me those who opened my eyes were opened by two superb singers, Irmgard Seefried and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. I was lucky to attend Lieder recitals by both of them several times. It’s a great over-simplification but also true that I always came away from a Seefried recital thinking of the music, and from Schwarzkopf, exhilarated by Schwarzkopf. But both were supreme Lieder singers; the latter, like DF-D much more occupied with the detail of the text, Seefried with a wonderful line on which the words seemed to float effortlessly.
DF-D recorded Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch both with Schwarzkopf and with Seefried (I’m thinking of their live recording from Salzburg on Orfeo). Both of these are amongst the treasures of my CD collection. As one example amongst so many of his sensitivity as a Lieder singer: with Schwarzkopf he is ‘hand-in-glove’ with her in his analytically detailed treatment of the text. With Seefried he adapts to her more straightforward style, without at all losing his own personality.
Well, I could go on forever on this subject, but better to stop and see if there is anyone wanting to follow up on this subject. Since this is a Gramophone Forum, it seems appropriate to mention how, over many years, I (and I believe we all) have benefitted from the wise counsel first of Alec Robertson, more recently Alan Blyth and John Steane, incomparable guides to Lieder and Lieder singing each of them.