Few singers have marked the century to such a degree. For
his 75th birthday, Deutsche Grammophon reissues recordings unavailable
on CD. And Andre Tubeuf recalls the art and the journey of this
"What does your dad do?" This question is (was)routine
among schoolchildren of the period. Fischer-Dieskau's sons had
be be unique: "Plattenspieler." While other fathers
drove trains, theirs played records. These children, though,
only saw the face emerging from the iceberg. When he wasn't at
home, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau didn't play records: he recorded
A first attempt for Electrola, 78 rpm, with the quite forgotten
Leo Stein at the piano, is an authentic artifact: two Loewe
ballads, Die Uhr and Tom der Reimer, as Leo Slezak and Tauber
could have done. From the barely-twenty-three-year-old boy who
just gave his first Liederabend in Leipzig (preceded by other
sorts of evenings in his prisoner-of-war camp in Italy), no declaration
of intentions aimed at triumph, no pretension. Just a calling
card. This one will like to tell a story; with only words he
is going to paint a landscape, sustain characters. To capture
our imagination, the other first disc, for DF, a 78 of course,
is Brahms' Vier ernste Gesaenge. No pretention here either, but
the acknowledgment, quite simple, of a disposition of soul that
leans toward the serious, and designates the essential. The voice,
one should know, is only an instrument in which the physical
obeys the moral; the crater will open, if the depth is there.
These are the serious (even black) songs that, fearless, but
not unaware, this very young (twenty-five years old!) high (and
almost, then, light) baritone was to audition in front of Furtwangler.
He presented himself not in what flattered his voice, but in
that which expressed him fully. Furtwangler contented himself
with responding, "Thank you." Two shy people, one facing
the other, would be doubly laconic. But the invitation came:
Mahler's Fahrenden Geselle under the baton of the maestro at
Salzburg, the summer of 1951, at twenty-six years of age!
Some people are ready, from birth, for everything that cannot
be taught; Patti was like this, with respect to vocal production,
breathing, tone. To sing, even to sing well, is for some an instinct.
Beyond this, Fischer-Dieskau had this accuracy of aesthetic judgment,
this rightness of taste, that almost dispenses with interpretation.
To read would be enough, and to sing what one had read. One has
from him, and published on CD, an entire Schwanengesang from
1948; he will record this cycle more than once, so particular
in its composite, even hybrid, quality, but not to deepen, and
above all not to search. Right away the words sound right and
full, the line in nothing but the breath become sonorous. Without
a doubt there was not a singer for whom at this point to sing
was obvious. The clear depth of tone, the inexhaustible plasticity
of the breath, the unimaginable ease of the tessitura, all this
is only the instrument, absolutely docile to an intelligence
that does not consist of looking for a meaning hidden behind
the words, but to put itself in their service, to let them speak.
To say that Fischer-Dieskau was the most natural of singers is
to imply that he was (contrary to a widespread prejudice,
especially in France) the least intellectual. To be intelligent
was enough for him, and intelligible. In Lied, from the very
beginning he was without limits, and, in a sense without progress.
When HMV issued his first series of 78s in Lieder, a Schoene
Muellerin and the Heine songs, and Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte
(1951), one said to oneself, thunderstruck, it is not possible
to be accomplished in this way so young. It would require forty
years before, even the manner of his voice and his breath, their
physical seat finally decaying (not much before his seventy-five
years) Fischer-Dieskau would change something in the interpretation.
The values will shorten, the fullness of sound on each note will
thin, or hollow. The simplicity, the intelligibility, even the
liquid quality, from beginning to end, will have stayed the same,
at once immediate and definitive.
But next to him, who does not vary, what a constellation of pianist
partners! Almost infinitely different from one another, they
oblige him each time to respond to their stimulation so that
he is fully himself! We almost forget, they are such formidable
pianists, Herta Klust, Gerald Moore, Hartmut Hoell, and even
Joerg Demus, Karl Engel and Aribert Reimann, accompanists so
habitual that one ends up believing that they were expected.
But the others! In strict alphabetical order: Ashkenazy, Barenboim,
Bernstein, Brendel, Britten, Eschenbach, Horowitz, Kempff (yes!
Even Horowitz and Kempff, the first once, for Lieder of his own
composition, the second for Dichterliebe, during the famous
Concert of the Century in 1976), Perahia, Pollini, Richter, Sawallisch
... All embarked, with Fischer-Dieskau, in what was the essential
adventure and undertaking of his life: the defense and illustration
of the German Lied. To have Richter or Barenboim close by as
one throws oneself into Die Schoene Magelone, a Brendel or a
Perahia (or even, at Salzburg, Pollini) in the still, infinite
whitenesses of Winterreise, this does not make the same Brahms
or the same Schubert --simply in the two cases a Brahms and
a Schubert equally (although differently) engaged, and accomplished.
One will not exhaust oneself, frequenting all his inexhaustible
life. Throughout the fifties, Fischer-Dieskau sang in public,
and recorded the expected Schubert cycles; from this period
date also Dichterliebe, An die ferne Geliebte, the first systematic
Schubert recitals, around three-quarters of an hour each (the
length of an LP), revealing among tens of others the jewels,
unknown even to the initiates of 78s, such as Die Sterne, Alinde
or Nachtviolen. The Wolf boxes made accessible--and, from the
start, definitive--the Moerike-Lieder, the Goethe selections,
Eichendorff ... The same canvassing, bulimic, certainly, but
perfectly reasonable, calculated in its progression, of Schumann
and Brahms, with Moore and Klust or Weissenborn on EMI, Demus
and then Moore on DG. The sixties will complete with Cornelius,
Loewe, Liszt, the gigantic complete Schubert, with Moore. Is
it necessary to recall that at barely thirty-five, Fischer-Dieskau
set a program, outside the repertory and almost beyond the public,
a contemporary program dedicated to Fortner (the Hoelderlin),
Reutter, Blacher and Reimann (the Celan); that he traveled beyond,
into Faure (La Bonne Chanson), Debussy (the Villon settings)
and Ravel (the Chansons Madecasses); that he canvassed (and in
what company! Rampal or Nicolet on flute, Veyton at the harpsichord)
material where certainly the baroques (who did not yet exist)
did not go looking, through that pure taste for undertaking that
is the only kind of curiosity that is truly noble. Rameau's
Thetis and Clerambault's Orphee, up to the Tenebres of Couperin.
All that material he put for us on disc, guaranteeing with his
seal of musical and vocal quality, that to follow him in listening
would be beautiful and would make us richer. The extraordinary
thing is that so many texts that he only learned for purposes
of recording them, and only sang once, with a view to the disc,
would have this polish, this settled quality, simplified, reduced
to speaking for themselves, as if they had been tried and reprised
in public, ten and twenty times. And how many texts in the run-of-the-mill
(there are some) works of Schubert, Brahms or even Wolf will
inspire in us the brusque, noncommittal regret that one doesn't
hear them in public often enough!
But then, was our Lieder-singer and record-player fully a
singer of opera? Not often, it is true. And because of an essential
shade of difference, which he himself expressed clearly, almost
harshly. In recital he was on his terms, the only one to choose
his program and to agree to his partners, while opera imposes
concessions. From his debut in Berlin as Posa in "Don Carlo"
in 1948 at Tietjens's request (a role made for his idealist's
gaze, and the heroic fragility of his voice, to say nothing of
the cantilena), he could have devoted himself to the stage and
its consuming prestige, to burn himself up there and, above all,
to compromise himself there. It would have been easy. He did
nothing about it. The lied and concerts required enough of him.
He accepted roles on recordings, in exemplary surroundings (like
Kurvenal in Furtwaengler's "Tristan" or the Dutchman),
that he would never have allowed himself to do in the theater.
Nevertheless, as early as 1954 (the mystic abyss permits) he
said yes to Bayreuth for Amfortas, then Wolfram, the Heerrufer
(in "Lohengrin") and even Kothner. But he wisely refused
the Count in the "Marriage of Figaro" for which Furtwaengler
had wanted him in Salzburg as early as 1952. He didn't sing his
first Count until 1956, for the Mozart year, when Oscar Fritz
Schuh as director and Karl Boehm as conductor made chamber musicians
out of marvelous and well-paired singers (there were Schwarzkopf
and Seefried, Kunz and Ludwig). "Don Giovanni" to open
the Berlin Opera with Fricsay in 1963, Don Alfonso somewhat later;
Mandryka in "Arabella" durably, and passionately, with
Della Casa first, then, 20 years later, with his beloved, the
definitive Varady; but also in Strauss's hometown, in Munich
to reopen the theater, a Barak in "Frau ohne Schatten"
phenomenal for its line, its depth, its projection, its timbre
(to say nothing of the marvelous eloquence of the words), followed
a bit later by Jochanaan. Sachs, long dreamed of (one would like
to say caressed), and prundently deferred, would come later,
at the right time: but one should no longer remember much about
his "Rheingold" Wotan for which he didn't refuse Karajan
and where he knew how not to spoil himself. A few excursions
into Verdi after the youthful Posas: a Macbeth in Salzburg (with
Grace Bumbry) and, against the Visconti's rather jaded skepticism,
a fabulous Falstaff. There were the two pieces of the "Trittico"
in Munich under Sawallisch: Gianni Schicchi (incredibly funny
with verve) and the "Tabarro" where the baritone and
the soprano (Varady) fell in love. And Vienna has the recollection
of some solitary Onegins (with Jurinac). Fischer-Dieskau certainly
sang the repertoire: but under conditions that did not form a
repertoire. He didn't amass dollars at the Met, not feeling himself
at home there, and in surroundings where he felt at home, in
Berlin and Munich, his home ports. His real work in opera was
devoted to works that had been cast aside or were not well known,
because of a lack of famous singers interested in them, and he
revived and rehabilitated them: "Wozzeck" and "Lulu"
by Berg, not well established at that time; Hindemith's "Cardillac";
Busoni's "Doktor Faust". His care and time, his artistic
self-denial went out to these unloved works and to the creation
of two of the absolute masterworks of the last half-century,
Henze's "Elegy for Young Lovers" and Reimann's "Lear".
In concert he was also the creator of two important oratorios
of the period, two requiems, Britten's and Reimann's. Besides
what is apparent, he was always prospecting and also always solicitous
of partners who inspired him, to record Britten's "Blake
Songs" with him, the "Michelangelo Suite" of Shostakovich
with Ashkenazy, and finding the time (and the breath, and the
memory, and the fervor) to reveal the essence of Messiaen's "Saint
Francois" to Salzburg as far back as 1985--and in what French!
He was also a painter, writer (Nietzsche, Pauline Viardot were
very good subjects for him, as well as Debussy), sometimes a
conductor; he happily made his voice available for listening
in very flowing readings. Nevertheless, without listing everything
he did, his activity and his essential act remain the same. He
inspires us to listen; he teaches us to listen. The "record-player"
gives rise ever day to 10 or 100 new record-players, who bring
hope to music and its youth reoriented and unmuffled.
Treasures and rarities abound in the twenty records released
by DG for Fischer-Dieskau's seventy-fifth birthday. Let us note
primarily the hitherto unpublished on CD: an exceptional Schoeck
group (here, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a pioneer and a prophet),
the programme with Engel (1977) completing a first with Margrit
Weber (1958); "Kraemerspiegel"
(irresistible) and other lieder of Strauss with Demus (1964)
and Engel (1960); Reger (Weissenborn, 1965) along with Pfitzner
(Engel 1959, Demus 1972); the much-awaited return of Liszt (Demus,
1962) with the "Petrarque" fantasies, completed in
1982 with Barenboim. Let us mention the remarkable triad of
Debussy (the Villons), Ravel (Madecasses, Grecques, Don Quichotte)
of 1959 with Engel, Nicolet, and Irmgard Poppen along with Charles
Ives (Ponti, 1975); finally the only tribute of DFD to performer/composers,
Mahler (pending) at the forefront, Busoni, up to Busch, Bruno
Walter and Kempff (the latter, let it be observed, already on
CD in addition to his complete Beethoven). These margins of
a repertoire, which is stunning as much for its diversity as
for its reach, have been anticipated by the curious who will
throw themselves into them with delight. Also hitherto unreleased
on CD are some admirable lieder collections: Brahms with Demus
(1957-1958) ; Schubert "Im Spiegel der
Antike" (Demus 1958-1961) ; particularly Schumann with
the vocally untouchable Kerner (Weissenborn 1956: with "Dichterliebe",
Demus 1965, an absolute must!). One presses less for the later
"Winterreise" (Barenboim), the unpublished "Muellerin"
(Demus), the "Schwanengesang" (Moore) and even the
illustrious Wolf "Moerike" with Richter. In these
Fischer-Dieskau is not at his best and other of his readings
are available. Bach (cantatas 1956 and 1982) with Buxtehude
(unpublished on CD), the Mahler cycles with Kubelik and Boehm,
these are again of the classical DFD.
Inevitably mixed, to our eyes, is a panorama of opera from
Handel (superb group from Munich, 1977) through Gluck to Wagner,
atypical to the widely varied complete works; and then still
a French-Italian blend (with "Falstaff" and "Boheme",
admittedly very juvenile, in German) where from Escamillo and
Tell to "Forza"'s Carlo one casts one's net fairly
wide. Item, a potpourri of sacred music, from Bach to Brahms.
Further, inseparable from its package, the delicious (and familiar:
Poppen on cello, and Nicolet, Engel) "volkslieder"
of Haydn, Beethoven, and Weber. A monument? Certainly, if one
considers how many complete Dietrich
Fischer-Dieskau collections are currently available. But we
still have some regrets. We would have placed here the lieder
of Meyerbeer, the "Jedermann" of 1963 directed by Frank
Martin himself, the young "Magelone" and "Enoch
Arden" where Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau acted as narrator,
rather than blends of opera and oratorio, so little resembling
to the spirit of a tribute which is not primarily addressed to
the general public. What do you want? It's not our fault if
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has made of us
curious record collectors!