Zum Liederabend am 12. Oktober 1988 in London


     The Times, 13. Oktober 1988     

Formidable to the end

Fischer-Dieskau / Höll

Queen Elizabeth Hall


There was a moment last night when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau tilted his tall frame forwards almost on to his toes in his eagerness to start singing again. This was at the start of the second part of his programme, and the song was Schubert’s "Glück ohne Ruh", or "Happiness without Rest", which just about sums up the state of the art where such a dominant and enduring musical personality is concerned.

For more than a generation he has been the touchstone of our understanding and enjoyment of Schubert as a song-writer. There can be no higher aspiration on the part of any singer in this repertory. And for this occasion, the second of three South Bank appearances that bring him tomorrow night to Richard Strauss, Fischer-Dieskau gave wholly and generously of Schubert in partnership with Hartmut Höll at the piano.

Moreover, they built their programme from Schubert’s settings of Goethe, with whose verse the composer was almost ideally in tune, in the best sense of taking a surprisingly wide variety and giving it musical illumination. This is true whether of the sad interior monologues of the three "Harper" songs or the lighter songs that came later.

Of these I found the folksy strophic charm of "Der Rattenfänger" and "Heidenröslein" more successfully caught than the romantic confidences of "Geheimes" or "An den Mond", where the scaling-down of the voice made it seem dangerously winsome, and the singer’s liking for the half-breathed sotto voce phrase meant that some words were diffused just too much. For an artist so concerned with words as he is, it flawed the musical purpose.

Of the great dramatic songs like the defiant "Prometheus" or the chilling epic of "Erlkönig", Fischer-Dieskau remains a formidable exponent with his partner’s piano playing to match. Humour was rarer element, but he found a surprising hint of it in "Der Musensohn", which became the prelude to a string of encores.

Noël Goodwin



     The Guardian, 14. Oktober 1988     

Singing Goethe’s heart out

Tom Sutcliffe at Elizabeth Hall


The second of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recitals in the current Queen Elizabeth Hall series was all Schubert and, even more significantly, all Goethe: the first half metaphysical, the second playful, youthful, affectionate, jokey. Can we British come to Goethe’s poetry better than with Schubert at hand and such a genius as Fischer-Dieskau suggesting, with extraordinary tact and subtlety, the poet’s imaginative range, ambivalence, modern stance?

Goethe’s humanism reaches out to the modern mind unsullied by romanticism, gothic revivalism or nature worship – even if poems like Erlkönig, Heidenröslein, König in Thule are genre pieces.

Schubert’s genius – apart from that effortless melodic ease – was to grasp the inner pace of Goethe’s prosody, the relative significance or informality of the concepts and images. Fischer-Dieskau’s genius is to make one think about the poetry above all else. What greater praise can one give to a singer than to say he makes the word tell volumes, in the broadest, most lateral sense of thought? Prometheus and Grenzen der Menschheit define the limits of enlightenment. Then arguments haven’t advanced any further since Goethe wrote.

Fischer-Dieskau, whose extremely individual choice of Schumann and Schubert attested to his familiarity with the total repertoire, opened with the testing Wilhelm Meister Harper’s Songs. The phrases and suspensions are much longer and more intense than they look, and a few times there almost wasn’t enough voice to last. These songs extraordinarily caught by the singer are about frightening ideas, not about prettiness or unfocused romantic angst. The "himmlischen Mächte" (heavenly powers) presided, man alone in the universe beneath. An die Türen, the climax of the long held "alle Schuld" (all guilt is endured on earth) preparerd us well for the epics to come.

A memorable first half ended with a sweet and utterly pure King of Thule and Erlkönig. This last song usually hurries inexorably and obsessively to its sad terminal, but Fischer-Dieskau emphasised the role of the actual Erl-king with some of the most remarkable whispered singing that I have heard in a song recital. Three characters on stage, three modes of imagination. Overwhelming.

The second half was relaxed, comic, amusing in Der Rattenfänger (The Rat-catcher) with just hints of sadness and frustration. Some strange swallowed turns in the music, and some daring speeds too. Hartmut Höll’s accompaniment was particularly thrilling in Versunken, where the piano is like the rush of hair that the poet is running his hands through. An Schwager Kronos glanced back slightly at metaphysics, but this Coachman Chronos is more of a variety character or entertaining effect than, say, Shakespeare’s Time. Yes, these songs could be said to call for the firm flesh of youth, for rounded beauty in the sound but, in the context of F-D’s plan of Goethe exploration, what mattered was contrast with the earlier thoughts, lightness, evocation of love. How right to end with greening verses.

The second half’s Goethe was like sorbet to clean the palate for Richard Strauss tonight. Again there were four beautifully delivered encores, which translations would have made better still, including the marvellous Auf dem See.

Listening to Fischer-Dieskau now, it is clear that slight roughness or gruffness in the voice, occasionally imperfect attack, a tendency even for the voice ro rattle slightly under pressure and for loud passages often to want the glow of former years – none of these flaws matters a jot.

The singer will be a feast to hear for many years, as his art becomes more condensed and his understanding more.

Tom Sutcliffe



     Daily Telegraph, 15. Oktober 1988     


Goethe in depth


For the second of his three Queen Elizabeth Hall recitals, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau turned his attention to Schubert’s settings of Goethe. Two great minds seldom think alike, but certainly those of Goethe and Schubert were well attuned.

That’s hardly surprising when the composer was able to penetrate so deeply into the heart and soul of the poems. Yet, it seems, the older man was never able to appreciate the younger’s settings. Why remains a mystery.

Perhaps if Goethe had heard Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretations of some of the profound and philosophical songs in the first half of this recital he would have capitulated. Certainly nobody else today has so unerringly understood the meaning of word and music as this singer. He effortlessly commands the vast range needed for such songs as "Prometheus", "Grenzen der Menschheit" and the Harper’s outpourings from "Wilhelm Meister". Even if one prefers Wolf’s more emphatic settings, one could not but marvel at the way Schubert’s were here expounded.

So many heavy songs lent a slight portentousness to the first half, but that was leavened just before the interval by a musing, almost conversational account of "The King in Thule" from "Faust", and an absolutely hair-raising interpretation of "The Erl King". Each character in the drama was so vividly and arrestingly impersonated that one was completely drawn into this mini-tragedy. Hartmut Höll’s management of the fiendishly difficult piano part was spectacular.

In the second half they and we could relax into a succession of the lighter songs. Once again Fischer-Dieskau found the precise formula for projecting these pieces: intimately sensuous for "Versunken" and "Geheimes", miniatures about love’s pleasures, bracingly hearty for "An Schwager Kronos", delicately confiding for the famous "Heidenröslein", which captivated the sold-out house.

Alan Blyth



     Sunday Telegraph, 16. Oktober 1988     

Born to Lied

MALCOLM HAYES on the art of Fischer-Dieskau


The sequence of three song-recitals in the Queen Elizabeth Hall by Berlin-born Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has been reminding audiences of the matchless artistic standards set by the finest German musicians.

As with the preceding week’s concert by another celebrated Berlin institution – the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – I found myself searching for clues, in Fischer-Dieskau’s programme of Schubert’s Goethe settings, as to just what it is that makes this artist special.

For instance so many professional musicians spend the first half-hour of a concert or opera warming up – a habit so widespread that you begin to resign yourself to it. But when you hear the three Gesänge des Harfners with which Fischer-Dieskau began this recital, you are reminded what truly professional music-making means. Every note, from the first of the evening to the last, was delivered one hundred percent.

Along with this mastery of the notes was the similar mastery of words. For instance, there was the way Fischer-Dieskau here captured the uneasy calm of the sea in Meeres Stille – just 33 words, every one of them placed, focused and shaded with the awareness that each was like a precious jewel, and underpinned by the quiet, beautifully weighted chords of Hartmut Höll’s accompaniment.

The evening was studded with similar examples of the searching imagination which both these performers brought even to the most familiar songs. There was the recitative-like drama of Prometheus, its irreverent protagonist intriguingly characterised as a genial rogue rather than the first and most furious revolutionary; the serene, solemn journey through the Olympian spaces of Grenzen der Menschheit; the hushed stillness of Wanderers Nachtlied, included as one of a quartet of encores; the wonderfully captured ballad-like simplicity and tragedy of Der König in Thule; and the exhilarating triplet rhythms of An Schwager Kronos cantering irresistibly up hill and down dale, on their way taking in a climax of ringing splendour whose words – "High, wide, glorius the view around into life" – in one phrase summed up the riches of this memorable recital. Incidentally both it and its companions (of songs by Schumann and Richard Strauss) have been recorded for broadcast during Radio 3’s Christmas season.

Malcolm Hayes



     Financial Times, 14. Oktober 1988     



On Wednesday it was Schubert: the second panel of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Lieder triptych this week was devoted to a selection of the Goethe settings. From the 70-plus available he selected 18, adding four more as encores, and spanning as wide a dramatic range as the Schumann conspectus on which David Murray reported on Tuesday.

The voice continued to be in fine fettle, rather better and more evenly powered than on the last two occasions on which I have heard a Fischer-Dieskau recital. Those took place in rather larger auditoriums (the Usher Hall and Royal Opera House); the Elizabeth Hall seems to suit the present dimensions of his art exactly. Nothing was pressed too hard, and only occasional phrases – the opening of "Der Musensohn" the most obvious – fined down beyond the point of audibility.

Art does not so much conceal art in Fischer-Dieskau’s singing as graft on to each song another totally individual skin; that may follow the contours of the original almost exactly – in "Geheimes" and "Meeres Stille", tone squeezed to the merest scrap in the latter – or give it a totally new, sometimes startling aspect.

The vivid declamation of "Prometheus" and "An Schwager Kronos" was thrillingly sustained, and decisively supported by Hartmut Höll’s accompaniments – his part in Fischer-Dieskau’s re-creative schemes must not be underemphasised – and the narrative force of "Erlkönig" hair-raisingly evoked, with each protagonist distinctly coloured.

Such operatic invention was perhaps taken too far in the twee presentation of "Heidenröslein" and "Der Musensohn", the only moments in the evening when one’s reactions were anything but unqualified pleasure. The simple (by Fischer-Dieskau’s norms) parsing of the three Harper Songs with which he opened the evening and of "Grenzen der Menschheit" and "An den Mond" (another setting of the same text became one of the encores) were the most striking – both for their restraint, and for the way in which each word was fitted into the shape of each phrase, and each phrase into the unity of the song with perfect sense and communicated comprehension.

Andrew Clements

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