21 Sides of Fischer-Dieskau

His technique was pectacular, and his force and sublety could be overpowering. But why was his singing so fussy?

When I was very much younger, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau seemed to be everywhere. I heard him first, as Papageno on a recording of Die Zauberflote, when I was in junior high school. Later, as my LP collection developed, I had him singing an improbable collection of roles -- Gunther in Gotterdammerung, Posa in Don Carlo, Rigoletto, Wozzeck, Dr. Schön in Lulu Hans Sachs, Kurwenal in Tristan, and more.

Granted, he was a lyric baritone and didn't sing all these parts onstage. But even on records, any Papageno who can plausibly thicken his voice for Sachs is a remarkably cultivated singer. He sang oratorio, too; I had him doing the bass solos in the St. Matthew Passion and various Bach cantata arias. Lieder, of course, he ruled like an emperor. Schubert’s two big song cycles, Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin, and Schumann’s cycle Dichterliebe, songs by Brahms and Hugo Wolf, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer -- even back in high school, I had all these Fischer-Dieskau records and many more. Later, I got to know other performances, by Hans Hotter, Hermann Prey, Gerard Souzay and Peter Pears (a wonderful Schöne Müllerin, with Benjamin Britten at the piano). But when I was young, I’d never heard anyone but Fischer-Dieskau sing lieder, and neither had many other people who bought classical records. I studied singing myself, and when I auditioned for the cultivated baritone Martial Singher, he gently asked, “You have been listening perhaps to Fischer-Dieskau?"

This twenty-one-CD retrospective box (with distressingly sparse back­ground material) offers only Fischer-Dieskau’s Deutsche Grammophon releases; his Gunther and his Posa were Decca recordings, and many of his early lieder LPs were on EMI. Still, the music here is wildly varied. We get all the key German lieder -- Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, Schumann-- plus less familiar songs by Liszt, Schoeck, Pfitzner and Reger. We also hear French songs; opera arias in German, French and Italian (including very early performances of scenes from Falstaff and La Bohème, in German); folksong arrangements by Haydn, Weber and Beethoven; fascinating obscurities by composers such as Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Kempff, who of course were best known as performers; Baroque music; and even twenty songs by Charles Ives.

Some of this (including a complete Schöne Müllerin with pianist Jorg Demus) has never been released on CD before, and the sheer breadth of it is staggering. I jumped in by choosing a Brahms CD and at first was almost overwhelmed. Fischer-­Dieskau was famous for his gorgeous high mezza voce, but I’d forgotten how rich his lower range could be, how uncannily smooth his singing was, and how his voice, very simply, gleams. Then there’s Fischer-Dieskau’s musical force -- everything flows, everything has a shape and a destination -- and his more than two-octave range, from a solid low E-sharp in the bass solo from Bach’s “Christ Lag in Todesbanden” cantata to a shining high B-flat in a little-known Strauss cycle, Krämerspiegel. (This, to digress for a moment, is a curious work in which Strauss truly sounds like an advanced figure of the twentieth century, writing music with a hard, sardonic edge.)

Fischer-Dieskau’s rhythm is astonishing; he dances over barlines, springing from note to note like a joyful antelope on a sunny day. And he can produce almost any note in his range at any volume, something that in the old bel canto days was expected of any singer, but which now is almost vanishinglv rare. Listen, for instance, to Fischer-Dieskau in Beethoven’s arrangement of “Put Round the Bright Wine,” a perky English folk song. In the first verse, there’s a passage that rises to a high F, followed by another that cases up to a G. A Verdi baritone -- your standard Rigoletto -- would work hard to get that out, but Fischer-Dieskau can play with it. He starts in an easy medium voice and teasingly gets quieter (hut not by much!) as he heads up to the F, then gets a hair softer still as he smiles toward an elegant, fanciful high G. This is masterful singing. He’s never really loud, never ostentatiously soft; instead, he plays with a thousand shades between medium loud and medium soft, getting more variety in two phrases than most singers get in their entire life­times.

Yes, Fischer-Dieskau has some vocal weaknesses -- sometimes he forces his tone, singing loudly in his lower range; sometimes his loud high notes sound blanched; most remarkably, his fioritura isn’t as fluid as it should be, so much so that, to my amaze­ment, he disastrously aspirates the elegant little four-note runs in Schubert’s “An Sylvia.” But overall, his technique is breath­taking; someone should build a monument to it.

And yet… strengths can also be weaknesses, and one could say that Fischer-Dieskau’s tricks with volume make his singing fussy, especially in Bach, where often I wish he’d just let the music speak for itself. His mezza voce leads him into trouble in Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge, where he starts to croon, making the music sound sentimental, a crime in such a noble work. He sings opera with penetrating intelligence, but his Papageno sounds contrived, not a true picture of innocence but an imitation of one. He so overwhelms the word “zucchero” (sugar) in the serenade from Mozart’s Don Giovanni that you’d think he forgot the mandolin called for in the stage directions, and instead stood under the poor woman’s window with an army of heavy-duty tanks and a bullhorn.

I won’t blame him for his Germanic Ives. Not many European singers could breathe the pure American air of that music, and maybe it’s good that Fischer-Dieskau doesn’t even try, because in “Urna fatale,” from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, he fakes an Italian style, singing with so much artificial extravagance that his performance turns into a travesty, a candidate for some kind of operatic Disney World. He sometimes does similar things even in lieder, despite a thousand wise interpretive details. I came to dread the word “Bächlein” (little brook), which pops up in the opening song of Schubert’s Schwanengsang and repeatedly in Schöne Müllerin. Years ago in Japan I met two little girls who quite literally blocked the sidewalk, refusing to move until we admired their new puppy. “Kawai!” they cooed. “Kawai!” (“Cute! Cute!”) That, unfortunately, is like Fischer-Dieskau with “Bächlein.” He will not let us go until we’ve admired just how sweet and burbly the little brook can be, and in similar ways he crushes the innocence of Schubert’s sim­pler songs. such as “An die Musik” and “Heidenröslein.”

Which is not to say there aren’t wonderful performances here. Schumann’s Dichterliebe sounds fervent and touching, ringing true in just the ways that “Heidenröslein” rings false. The Pagliacci prologue isn’t at all exaggerated, and it had me riveted to the words as I’ve never been when any Italian sang it. Ravel’s Don Quichotte cycle, a loving portrait of the clueless knight, would die of shame if anyone infected it with “Bächlein” rot; Fischer-Dieskau avoids this and finds just the right note of droll affection. Improbably. perhaps, “Cortigiani” (from Rigoletto) gets an honest reading, and if Fischer-Dieskau, reviling the Duke’s ugly courtiers, sounds more like an outraged philosopher than like a man who’s just been hurt in his deepest heart, at least the specificity of such a criticism is a tribute to Fischer-Dieskau’s own specificity: most singers just sound angry in no special way at all.

But in the end, Fischer-Dieskau exhausted me. I remembered a critique by the great French social and literary critic Roland Barthes, who in “The Grain of the Voice,” a 1972 essay, uses Fischer-Dieskau to demonstrate something self-conscious and “artistic” (in the vulgar sense of the word), which he feels has taken over music. “Fischer-Dieskau,” he wrote, “is certainly an irreproachable artist...and yet nothing seduces, nothing persuades us to enjoyment; this is an excessively expressive art conveyed by a voice without ‘grain,” a voice that (as Barthes explains in complex and difficult language) doesn’t have any bodily weight and can’t give us anything deeper than what’s merely in the words or the musical phrasing.

In my own version of Barthes’s point, Fischer-Dieskau is a phenomenon of our modern age, in which classical music has become a billion-dollar business. Like Georg Solti, and like Herbert von Karajan at the end of his career, he does spectacular things to the outside of music, but he rarely gets inside. Barthes cites a singer who still sings in the old way, the French baritone Charles Panzéra; my own example would be Hans Hotter. When Hotter sings, his voice sounds like a natural substance, full of “grain” (to use Barthes’s word), full of inner life and detail. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice sounds artificial; its surface shines, but I can’t hear anything underneath.

After a high-priced meal, a simple salad might seem to have no taste, and after Fischer-Dieskau, Hotter can sound too plain, like a simple home lost in the middle of a roaring city But then after Hotter, Fischer-Dieskau sounds overproduced, like a star at a Hollywood premiere, complete with searchlights, an entourage and a flock of publicists. Hotter, by comparison, just sounds like a man singing, a man of deep nobility and strength.

I so much prefer that.

Opera News November 2000

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