Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

19 May

I imagine that every blogger on opera and music in the world is writing something about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau today.  This is what I felt about him.

I never saw him on the stage – after the 1960s, I don’t think he came back to the Royal Opera House (allegedly because of the vitriol the press poured on his Falstaff), though were performances in Edinburgh and by the time I was travelling he had more or less given up stage performances.  He was, however, the person who started my love of German lieder.

I was a teenage opera lover but was not sure about whether lieder was for me.  I was afraid that it would be dull, inaccessible and not that relevant.  However, some friends had a spare ticket to a recital he was giving of Brahms lieder at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to hear him.  It was a revelation.

I remember two things in particular.  The first was the sheer stature and star quality of the man: the way in which one person with a pianist (Hartmut Höll, I think) could keep an audience in the huge Usher Hall in rapt attention and build these miniatures into works that fitted the building.  The second was what he was able to make of those songs.  He showed me the depths of emotion and the ideas that they could convey and what a great composer and interpreter could do with mediocre poetry to create something bigger.  I knew in theory this was possible simply from listening to opera, but I hadn’t applied it to lieder.   That recital changed me: I had, quite suddenly, “got” lieder.

I went out and bought as many LPs of DFD as I could afford and so got, through him, an introduction Schumann, Wolf, Mahler and, particularly, Schubert.  When I moved to London, I went to as many of his recitals there as I could.

There is one recital which I remember particularly.  It was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in  the late 1980s when, again with Höll, he performed a selection of Schubert’s settings of Goethe.  The voice was well past its best by then but it was an object lesson in how to use what he had to make the songs work so that you didn’t feel that you needed the things that he couldn’t do any more. I will not forget, in particular, the juxtaposition of two songs: Prometheus with its wonderfully almost atheistic defiance of the Gods (we can get along without you) and Grenzen des Menscheits which explores the limits of humanity and the need for a spiritual higher plane.  DFD made us engage with these philosophical texts: they mattered and were about more than simply a culinary, clever setting of songs.

Many people I respect have reservations about him, feeling that in the late ’60s and beyond he became mannered and his attention to the text and obsession about nuance obscured as much as it enlighteded.  In the recitals I heard, this never struck me.  For me, he is one of those artists, like Callas, who an authority and integrity that you cannot ignore and the fact that some of what he does may or may not appeal to an individual simply isn’t the point.  Attending his recitals was watching a great artist create and explore with vast intelligence, technical expertise and curiosity.

I enjoy his opera recordings too – particularly the sheer beauty, gentleness and intelligence that he brings to Verdi.  None of them might be a top recommendation for the opera but his performance is always hearing.

I would doubtless have “got” lieder sooner or later, but it was DFD who converted me and who was responsible for a couple of the most profound experiences that I have gained in the concert hall.  He started me on a path that enabled me explore other singers and other ideas.  I owe him much for that and the day on which I heard the news of his death is a good time to set that down.  I’ll obviously want to listen to at least one of his CDs today and I think the one that I’ll choose is a 1987 recording that he made, with Höll, of 16 late Schubert songs – to remind me of the DFD that I heard: a great singer bringing all his experience to my favourite songs.


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