Zum Liederabend am 9. Oktober 1988 in London  


     The Times, 11. Oktober 1988     

Master of perfection

Fischer-Dieskau / Höll

Queen Elizabeth Hall


Even the lone clarinetist on Hungerford Bridge was honouring the occasion in his own cunning transcription of the Dichterliebe: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was back in town. Schumann was chosen as the single focus of the first of his three recitals (Schubert tomorrow, Strauss on Friday), and there can be few more powerful experiences than watching that most literate of Lieder singers meeting quite the best-read song composer of them all.

The further Fischer-Dieskau travels, though, in his incessant and indefatigable search for the very essence of his art, the more the learning recedes and the responses of composer to poet, recreator to creator become inseparably fused. His opening group of Rückert settings had a euphoric simplicitiy about them: the voice leaned forward on the vowels, words sidled into place, and then a sense of extreme relaxation would suddenly harden into a resilient, almost physical defiance.

A particular quality of withdrawn half-voice, such that the words barely moved the air, had the audience in a state of near hypnosis for "Meine Rose" and later, Eichendorff’s "Der Einsiedler" (The Hermit). Fischer-Dieskau’s tinting of the single word "Morgenrot" (dawn) with a degree warmer sound was just one example of a new level of artistic perfection which is characterizing his performances.

Neither is it, at 63, a question of artistry masking or distracting the ear from inevitable vocal weaknesses. For Fischer-Dieskau it is as though his own new insights and the considerable stimulus of those of his accompanist, Hartmut Höll, act as a fertilizer on the voice’s own productivity.

So it was in the range of colour timbre and dramatic pacing of which he was master in the biting Heine and Hans Andersen settings which dominated the evening. In the staring, expressionistic horror of "Es leuchtet meine Liebe", the narrative anguish he uncovered in both "Die beiden Grenadiere" and "Der Soldat", and in the strange, distant introspection of his "Der Spielmann", Fischer-Dieskau incarnated nothing less than the paradoxes of the German romantic psyche itself.

After the feverish frivolity of Geibel’s gypsy and smuggler songs came five encores, and a final promise of wit as well as wisdom later in the week.

Hilary Finch



     THE GUARDIAN, 11. Oktober 1988     


Tom Sutcliffe on a superlative recital by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau at the QEH


In some ways Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is now singing better than ever. Extraordinary what aging does to a performing artist. As anybody can hear, the voice has grown brittle, and in some ways gruff. The tone of itself cannot but reveal the natural truth – that volume is less, breath support is limited, colour is paler.

Like flowers, the human voice fades. It’s been true of Sinatra for a long time, and in May Sutherland’s Anna Bolena was autumnal if not valedictory: only the most blinkered fans, playing their memories again, can have heard what they hoped for apart from flashes and embers, unpredictable and piercing beauty on shooting star notes defying the years.

But less can be more. Take Schumann’s Der Einsiedler (The Hermit) in this first of three Fischer-Dieskau Lieder recitals at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a marvellously simple strophic song that has been a special favourite of mine since I first heard it on his 1964 recording over 20 years ago. In the flesh, he is the hermit – he doesn’t just sing it. Eichendorff’s lyric presents a valedictory notion, a sense of wholeness in the world, that Fischer-Dieskau at 41 could only poetically suggest.

Now, singing the song far slower, eyes shut, face raised, hair iron grey, feeling a way through the text, each phrase fully measured and presented with a mature musical artistry that rings with both pathos and simultaneously a kind of artistic triumph, he is singing beyond mere poise, beyond mannerism. Most innate expressive quirks reduce readily to mannerism if you hear them the wrong way. F-D’s total identification is profoundly affecting. The whole audience hung on each second, hypnotised, just as after the fifth generous and easy encore as he grew more and more relaxed and rewarding, they rose and cheered.

Perhaps familiarity made this and The Treasure-seeker so powerful for me in his all-Schumann programme. But when the singer’s old mastery summons sufficient muscle, as it did for most of the second half of the concert, the mature characteristics of his sound work even better than his former firm-fleshed beauties. He spair and bitterness, because the fierceness of age makes them unaffectedly present.

The grasping character of the digger was drawn with great courageous force, just as the sting in the tail of Hans Andersens’s Mother’s Dream gained a wonderfully cruel irony. Fischer-Dieskau really twists the knife when he becomes the raven (Der Rabe) croaking that the baby, when it grows up to be a robber (Räuber), will be gallows fare for his brood.

The change of direction in Andersen’s Soldier, suddenly, from the man going before the firing squad to the one whose bullet actually does the job, was equally startling. Fischer-Dieskau can freeze your heart now: age has stripped away the conventional sentimentality of the Lieder-singing artist whose accessible sound and immaculate style made him the ideal EMI recording artist.

The language is still enunciated like crystal: the legato can still woo the ear: the portamenti are as willing as those eyes sweeping the audience, demanding attention, or the whole large frame that responds with awkward physical intensity to the pianist’s often (in the case of Schumann) syncopated and florid extension of the poem. It would incidentally be hard to imagine better accompaniment, more pianistically daring and yet so exactly geared to the soloist’s needs, than Hartmut Höll provided.

The first half was jinxed by a wavering high pitched tone (from a light bulb or a hearing aid) that added to the slight discomfort with which the singer started. His timbre was sometimes like a bark; his voice started to judder a little when pushed.

But happily, after the break, the leap upwards for ‘Metalle aus dem Schacht’ with its sense of treasure coming to the surface, evoked from F-D a reassuring perfectly focused headvoice. On the record, in youth, he did not use such a trick, but sang in a fully resonant mixture of chest and head. Yet with a mature artist, such a lovely sounding technical trick no longer counts as a trick. The artist does what he must. And this first of three recitals suggests Fischer-Dieskau at 63 is still, in his own terms, unbeatable.

Tom Sutcliffe



     Daily Telegraph, 11. Oktober 1988     

Making time stand still


Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in London for three recitals at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, is a phenomenon of our, or indeed any, time. More than one generation has been lucky to live in his era and enjoy his art. Never has there been an interpreter of Lieder with such a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of his art, with such a vast repertory, or with such an extraordinary range of expression.

I recall a Schumann recital given by him at the Festival Hall as long ago as 1959 (when he had already been before the public for more than 10 years). And here he was on Sunday evening devoting himself to the same composer almost 30 years on, listened to by many not born when he appeared on the earlier occasion, all eager to experience a figure who has become a musical legend in his own lifetime.

It is true, in some recent appearances, his voice has shown sign of wear and tear, so that one felt it might be wise for him to hang up his lute. Not on this occasion, however, when he seemed once more in pristine form. The old control of mezza voce was there in a wondrous account of "Der Einsiedler" where the singer, echoing Schumann, caught the quiet serenity of the hermit described in Eichendorff’s poem.

His supreme gift in story-telling, so that one hangs on to every word uttered, was there in "Baltazar" and "Die beiden Grenadiere", two of the composer’s most evocative settings of Heine.

The manner in which he can capture and hold a single mood was exemplified in "Melancholie", where the aching pain of text and music were ideally experienced. Here as in the histrionic enactment of "Der Soldat", a pointed setting of Hans Andersen, and the sultry inwardness of "Meine Rose", the unerring precision of the bariton’s art remains almost uncanny.

The liberties taken, which might seem self-indulgent, in other, lesser hands, here seem inevitable and right. These days, with the young Hartmut Höll as his eagerly perceptive and technically nimble partner, Fischer-Dieskau seems to have been inspired to refine his art even further with well-nigh perfect integration of voice and piano.

The programme itself may have offered rather short measure in terms of length, but the number of encores was generous. Among them a perfectly poised account of "Die Lotusblume" was the gem. Time for a minute or two seemed to stand still. Such is the spell of a noble artist.

Alan Blyth



     The Independent, 11. Oktober 1988     

Sung from the soul

Michael John White on Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau


There are many Lieder singers capable of reading a song’s inner life but hardly any who could live it, onstage, with an audience, like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That uniquely penetrating power of expression has, over the past 30 years, been a catalyst in recital singing: it set a standard and it caused other singers to rethink their own work in a way which we accept, now, as a point of progress in the history of the art.

But there was a time when Dieskau’s methods – particularly his preparedness to sacrifice smoothness and beauty of tone to dramatic character – courted controversy. To ears raised on the old traditions of the pre-war Germans it seemed like a mis-ordering of priorities; and even for younger ears there was a detectable conflict at moments in his recitals when the voice seemed to abandon the performing manners of the concert platform and take on the theatrical largesse of the opera stage. The technique was never less than challenging and confronting; but for that very reason it was sometimes uncomfortable.

As Fischer-Dieskau has grown older, though, a remarkable thing has happened; and British audiences have been able to chart its happening through his infrequent but concentrated visits here – the latest of which began on Sunday, launching a trio of recitals at the QEH that continue tomorrow and on Friday.

The depth (and breadth) of expression is still there, and Sunday’s all-Schumann programme might have been chosen to exploit it, prominently placing songs with strong dramatic narratives like Belsatzer and Die beiden Grenadiere. But to a far greater degree, now, he accommmodates expressive detail within a broad legato style and manages it without comprimise to either.

The atmosphere of Belsatzer was cast with an icy sharpness, all colour drained from the voice for the description of the king "trembling at knee and pale as death"; while the five verses of Der Spielmann (The Fiddler) were models of how to motivate a song through progressive characterisation.

Each verse ablaze with a distinctive personality but feeding into an emotional continuum from the anguished asperity of the first (a village wedding seen through the eyes of a rejected suitor), opening out to the wild frenzy of the third (the suitor proves to be a musician playing at the wedding feast) and closing in on the desperate pathos of the fifth, where the suitor has gone mad and the narrator prays for his own sanity because "I myself am a poor musician".

In all Schumann there is no more touching line than this, prophetic of the composer’s own decline. Fischer-Dieskau didn’t so much deliver it as give birth to it, the words pulled from his soul. It froze the audience with a chilling frankness: Dieskau at his absolute best. But also Dieskau at his most absolutely beautiful, floating an immaculate mezza voce through the hall as easily as if it were at full dynamic strength.

The secret is, I think, the wonderful liquidity of movement in the voice which with age (Dieskau is now 63) has grown looser – although not in the way you might dismiss an old man’s voice as loose. It simply pours like wine into his repertory: a little thin sometimes (his diplomatically intelligent accompanist, Hartmut Höll carefully matches his own weight of tone to the singer’s so that there is no sense of imbalance) but never frayed. Never a misplaced note or any suggestion of tiredness. Each song start with a sudden bodily inflection to the pianist, like a sprinter on alert, which seems to generate a lasting charge between these two superb musicians and their audience.

On Sunday, I regret to say, the audience generated a charge of its own when someone’s hearing aid crossed signals with the PA system in the hall and whistled oscillating pitches, ruinously, through Der schwere Abend and Meine Rose. Digital watches were bad enough, but at least you could berate the owner in the interval.

Michael John White



     Financial Times, 11. Oktober 1988     


Elizabeth Hall


On Sunday Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau devoted his Lieder recital with Hartmut Höll to Schumann; on Wednesday it will be Schubert, and on Friday Richard Strauss. The great baritone attaches high value to live performance (as do we all, of course): mid-stalls seats, of which dozens were empty, cost £30 each (programme-book extra), or about a pound for every two minutes of actual performing – or to put it yet another way, the price of three well-filled compact discs. For a London Liederabend this may well be a record, and the longer it remains unchallenged the better.

Vulgar carping aside, there was no doubt that the 63-year-old Fischer-Dieskau was in illustrious form. Tonal beauty is no longer a special desideratum, though there were sudden lovely moments (and only a hint or two of the old hectoring bark). Musical grip and searching interpretation are what one expects from him, and the voice – still large, clear and coloured with astounding resource – met those demands with full authority.

During his last Lieder rounds here, one remarked a new attraction to variously "dark" songs. Sunday’s programme, which juxtaposed earlier and later Schumann to highly suggestive effect, favoured wry, bleak or bitterly vehement pieces over anything romantically ingratiating. The Hans Andersen songs of op. 40 sounded as black and unsparing as Mahler, and the op. 57 "Belshazzar" ballad (grandly dramatised by Höll too) became an Eisenstein mini-epic. By contrast "Meine Rose" was pressed down to a tremulous thread; the late Zigeunerliedchen and "Der Contrabandiste" – and the deeply peculiar "Abends am Strand", one of five encores – were astringently pawky in Dieskau’s newest vein, not so far from H.K. Gruber’s chansonnier style.

By a pedantic reckoning he took many liberties with the printed music: violent dynamic switches, tempi wilfully stretched and compressed. With his sovereign grasp of rhythm (which includes timing and pace), he can do such things without dropping a musical stitch, and to vital dramatic gain; except for incurable pedants, all his literal departures from Schumann’s scores had the ring of sterling insights. Not to be imitated, ofcourse: Fischer-Dieskau’s expressive freedom is anchored by long and inimitable penetration into his songs. Any mannerisms that cropped up in this recital were quirks of the personal medium, never kinks in the message.

David Murray

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