Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - Lieder 1850-1950
This is such an important collection that it seems a pity to begin with a reservation, but it’s a serious one. There are 88 songs here, most of high quality, the great majority little known and many otherwise unavailable. Their quality, of course, has to do with the relationship between text and music, but no texts or translations are provided. This is a disastrous impedance to appreciating not only these songs but Fischer-Dieskau’s artistry. To mark his 75th birthday in this way and to charge full price for it is outrageous.
Some of the most striking songs are by unknown composers. Theodor Kirchner emerges as an accomplished member of Schumann’s circle, with abundant melodic appeal and subtle harmonies. Theodor Streicher sounds like a German John Ireland, and a charming one. Alexander Ritter, an important influence on the young Richard Strauss, makes one’s hair stand on end with his tonally adventurous, startlingly original ‘Primula veris’. Emil Mattiesen provides memorable accompaniments (slumberous and hypnotic in one song, prowling staccato in the other) to chromatic but strong vocal lines. Hermann Reutter portrays the astronomer Johann Kepler in clean, dry counterpoint; the result is like the very best Hindemith. Wolfgang Fortner, described in the not very useful booklet as ‘the Leipzig-born 12-tone composer’ contributes three songs, none serial or even atonal, including a weird little setting (in English) of Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ and a beautiful, very simple one of Holderlin’s Abbitte.
Of the better-known figures, Robert Franz has an often simple charm to which Fischer-Dieskau’s intensity is not ideally suited, but he finds dark eloquence as well as lyric freshness in Grieg’s settings of German texts and both grace and ardour in Liszt; his Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh has a magical stillness. Some of the choices cast light on the singer himself: he chooses two of Peter Cornelius’s bigger songs, not the more familiar folksong-like pieces, and his scholarly interest in Nietzsche leads him to select three that give an idea of that talented amateur composer’s range: an effective romantic number, an odd little epigram and a song that few other singers would have undertaken because of the vast vocal range it demands. Schoeck, Reger and Pfitzner are only sampled, but each is strongly represented. The very early Wagner song is scarcely characteristic (the booklet talks nonsense about it pre-echoing Act 3 of Die Walkure) but the Strauss, unpublished when this recording gave it its first performance, has since deservedly joined the canon. Among the curiosities Felix Weingartner’s ‘Liebesfeier’, a hit in its day, sounds like a poor man’s Strauss (more precisely a cheap substitute for ‘Zueignung’).
Apart from the intensely expressive Webern and Eisler pieces and Hans Erich Apostel’s ‘Nacht’ none of the modern songs entirely eschew tonality, though Hermann Reutter nears the brink with effective vehemence in two settings (in English) of Langston Hughes, and Josef Matthias Hauer demonstrates that his form of serialism is by no means incompatible with lyricism or drama. The ‘conservative’ Gottfried von Einem uses what one might call a radical simplicity to arresting effect; so does Paul Dessau (his songs described quite wrongly in the booklet as ‘cabaret-tinged’). Both of the Krenek songs (in one of them a folk-like tune turns in unexpected directions and encounters quirky harmonies) are well worth discovering; so are the two bony little epigrams by Boris Blacher. A rich and absorbing survey of the latter history of the Lied, but the vessel has been spoiled for a ha’p’orth of printer’s ink.'