Fischer-Dieskau and Me - Part Seven

by Celia Sgroi  
State University of New York College at Oswego  

In June of 1996, I made yet another pilgrimage to Feldkirch for FiDi and the Schubertiade. This time I only stayed a week, but it was a week in which I heard ten concerts. The theme of the 1996 Schubertiade was "Schubert and Beethoven," which was certainly reflected in the concert programs, with an additional nod in the direction of the 100th anniversary of the death of Clara Schumann.

I renewed my acquaintance with the Hotel Rosenberger and the usual guests at the Schubertiade. I was sad to learn that one of the mainstays among the Schubertiade visitors, Alfred Krempel, had just died of complications following pneumonia, which he had contracted in January while in Salzburg at the Mozartwoche to hear his dear friend Andras Schiff. Doris and Fred Krempel had "adopted" many of the younger Schubertiade guests and had entertained us over the years, particularly with dinners after concerts at their "Stammtisch" in the Gasthof Lingg in Feldkirch. Although Fred was 84 years old, his death was still unexpected and a shock to everybody who knew them, and that was practically everybody at the Schubertiade. Fred died literally the day before the Schubertiade began, and it was quite painful to go to each concert and see the two empty seats in the front row, where he and Doris always sat.

The concerts I heard involved a great many familiar artists and a couple of new ones. The opening concert of the festival was a Lieder recital by Cheryl Studer and Jonathan Alder. I had no previous experience whatever of Studer as a recitalist and had no idea what to expect. The first half of her recital consisted of songs by Schubert, while the second half was made up of songs by Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss. Studer did something I have never encountered in a concert. She repeated her first group of Schubert songs because she did not feel that she had sung them as they should be sung. Whatever her indisposition had been, she seemed to overcome it and continued in good form. The Strauss songs seemed most suited to her voice and temperament and were the highlight of the evening. Her interpretations were very large-scale and dramatic, more "operatic" than one usually hears in Lieder. She had a distinct, individual personality and seemed to identify strongly with the songs she sang. I enjoyed the concert very much, although I heard some of the purists grumbling a bit after it was over. Personally, I'd rather hear someone who pushes a bit at the boundaries of "Lieder style," if there is such a thing, than some of the "correct" but colorless Lieder performances I have heard over the years, many of them right in Feldkirch. I was interested after the performance to discover that, although Studer's diction and pronunciation in her sung German were quite good, her spoken German, although fluent, had a pronounced American flavor.

An example of correct but colorless Lieder singing was provided in the second concert I heard, in which Oliver Widmer sang an all-Schubert program that consisted mainly of ballads. Widmer always ends up being less than the sum of his parts. He is intelligent, has a good voice and beautiful diction, and clearly knows what he is doing, but I find him dull. Either he doesn't feel much or he isn't able to communicate what he feels to the audience. A Lieder program that includes "Erlknig," "Der Zwerg," "Der Knig in Thule," "An Schwager Kronos," and "Der Rattenfnger" should not threaten to put you to sleep. The highlight of the evening was Andras Schiff at the piano. As always, he was able to make the piano parts of familiar Schubert songs sound completely new. His playing of "Die Forelle" was a revelation. He also had to struggle in the first half of the concert with a page-turner who was suffering from stage fright and couldn't or wouldn't turn the pages. I thought Schiff's head would fall off as he nodded and nodded, to no avail. Finally, he took over and turned the pages himself. In the second half, another page-turner appeared.

The next day provided a major disappointment. Thomas Hampson had been scheduled to sing a program of Schubert and Beethoven Lieder, accompanied by Wolfram Rieger. Unfortunately, Hampson was ill and cancelled. The festival management was lucky enough to be able to engage Wolfgang Holzmair at short notice. I went to the concert consumed by curiosity and doubts. I had heard Holzmair on record and had not been particularly impressed. I had also heard horror stories about his physical mannerisms when he sang. Sitting in the fourth row, dead center, I saw him at close range and was appalled. He was a handsome man with a lovely voice, but I found his singing of songs I knew well to be really strange. His tempi were often extremely slow, and he would run out of breath before he reached the end of a phrase. For example, he is the only singer I have ever heard suck air before the word "spaehend" at the end of the first line of the first song in Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte ("Auf dem Hgel sitz' ich [gasp!] spaehend"). This sort of thing was bad enough, but his physical mannerisms were worse than I had ever imagined. About half of the audience thought he was wonderful and applauded enthusiastically, and the other half thought he was terrible. Talking to people after the concert, it seemed that the farther away people sat, the better they thought he was. I could certainly understand that. Personally, I don't think I would be anxious to hear him again.

The next evening Peter Schreier and Andras Schiff performed Die Schne Mllerin. I know that this was not the first time I had heard Schreier and Schiff perform this cycle, but this concert in particular convinced me finally that Die Schne Mllerin really needs to be sung by a tenor. I grew up on the 1961 F-D/Moore version of the cycle, which I still consider to be the best interpretation of it that I have ever heard, but hearing Schiff play the accompaniments in the original keys was a revelation. His playing was so lucid and flowed so beautifully. The brook rippled as I have never heard it before, bright and clear on the surface, with shadows and shoals underneath. He supported Schreier perfectly, but he also contributed enormously to the overall effect of the cycle. Peter Schreier's voice sounded pretty worn, but his interpretation seemed just right. It was not too weighty and seemed very innocent, pure, and youthful. This cannot be easy for a man in his sixties, and I had had an opportunity to hear for myself that Fischer-Dieskau was not capable of that identification with the youthful protagonist at an advanced age. And Schreier's performance was so well-proportioned, balanced, and restrained. It made Holzmair's antics of the night before seem even more grotesque. I have never been able to enjoy Schreier's voice, but my respect for him as a singer has grown constantly, and again I felt grateful at having had the opportunity to hear him.

The following morning I got an unexpected treat. I was at the Schubertiade ticket office in the Montforthaus when a rehearsal for that evening's performance of Das Lied von der Erde began. I was standing in the hallway when a member of the orchestra asked if I wanted to come inside to listen. I didn't need a second invitation. The soloists were Yvi Jnicke and Christian Elsner. The orchestra was the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, and the conductor was Fischer-Dieskau. A few people were sitting in the hall during the rehearsal, while a swarm of cameramen and technicians from WDR filmed the proceedings for a documentary on the Schubertiade. Apparently this was not the first time that they had performed the work together, and the rehearsal was basically a run-through. Still, it was interesting to listen to, although I often couldn't hear all of what Fischer-Dieskau was saying when he spoke to the singers and the orchestra. One thing I did hear was F-D's complaints about a telephone that had been set up next to his podium. The phone kept ringing, and it was always a wrong number. Couldn't they turn it off? No, they could not. At one point the phone rang and F-D answered it. No, Herr Soundso was not there and was not going to be. Who was he? "Sir," said F-D with great dignity, "I am employed by the concert hall." And after that he took the phone off the hook for the remainder of the rehearsal. As in the past, F-D conducted sitting down. When the rehearsal was over, F-D gave the chair he had been sitting on (it was an adjustable piano stool) a little pat. I had cause to remember that gesture at the concert later.

What could a trip to the Schubertiade be like without a story about F-D in the elevator? After the rehearsal, I found myself riding upstairs in the elevator with F-D, an older couple who appeared to be friends of his, and a young woman from WDR who had been in charge of the TV filming in the Montforthaus. The elevator stopped on the second floor. The doors opened, revealing a woman who stood there, gaping at Fischer-Dieskau. Finally she recovered herself and stepped forward into the elevator. "Ich will nach oben," she said, still staring at F-D, who answered this rather ambiguous statement with a grave, "So wollen wir alle," which was equally ambiguous. The woman from WDR snickered and said "Onward Christian Soldiers" under her breath, which earned her a squelching look from F-D. I didn't even crack a smile until I got off the elevator, at which point I nearly had hysterics. I suppose things like that happen to F-D all the time, but I still don't know how he deals with it with a straight face.

That same day, there was an afternoon Lieder recital by Boje Skovhus. He sang an expanded version of Schwanengesang, with additional songs by Johann Gabriel Seidl. The festival staff, in their infinite generosity, had given me a seat in the front row center for this concert. I asked myself, why don't I get this kind of seat for Fischer-Dieskau? At any rate, I was in the perfect position to see (not to mention hear) that Skovhus was in real distress. He seemed to be suffering from allergies or a sinus problem. His voice only sounded full and healthy at full volume and in his lower range. Otherwise, it was very pinched and nasal and sounded all bottled up in his head. And even at full voice it had a pressed, unpleasant edge to it. Boje Skovhus is a very attractive man with a very appealing personality, and I would love to hear him in opera. My third experience of him as a Lieder singer convinced me that Lieder singing is not his strong point by any means.

That evening in the Montforthaus was Das Lied von der Erde. The program began with Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. Fischer-Dieskau, resplendent once more in white tie and tails after being "on strike" for the last two years (dark business suits only), conducted with restrained elegance. Toward the end of the first movement, however, he suddenly gave a lurch forward. When the movement ended, he stood up cautiously and the concert master helped him to remove the piano stool from the podium. Apparently the mechanism that adjusted it had given way, and we almost lost F-D head first into the orchestra. So much for the encouraging pat he had given the stool at the end of the rehearsal! F-D conducted the final movement standing up, looking like an elegant telephone pole. At the intermission, an old-timer opined that the only conductor he had ever experienced who seemed taller than F-D was Wilhelm Furtwaengler. He refrained from making any further comparison of the two of them. F-D was back sitting down for Das Lied von der Erde. This was the first time I had heard the piece live, and I was astonished at how much more beautiful it was live than recorded. The singers were both young, and they were singing the work for the first time in this series of performances. Christian Elsner, a former F-D pupil, had an attractive bright, lyric tenor voice with a slightly dark color. His diction was exemplary, and, once he had overcome his nervousness, he sang with a great deal of verve and enthusiasm. Yvi Jnicke seemed to have a somewhat delicate voice, but she overrode the orchestra easily and sang with great feeling. Her "Abschied" was very moving. I found it interesting that F-D, although a singer himself, was not particularly solicitous of the singers. When the orchestra was supposed to be loud it was loud and the singers had to fend for themselves. I thought that it was the best thing I had ever heard F-D conduct, and the audience responded very enthusiastically.

The next day was Sunday. As is the custom at the Schubertiade, there was a concert at 11 AM in the Montforthaus. This time, Andras Schiff, his wife, violinist Yuuko Shiokawa, and pianist Till Fellner performed music by Schubert: the F-minor Fantasy for piano with Schiff and Fellner, the C major Fantasy for piano and violin with Schiff and Shiokawa, and Schiff in the Wandererfantasie. It was a pleasant, festive occasion, but the weather had turned cold and rainy, and by the time the concert was over it was pouring. Lacking an umbrella, I dashed the short distance back to the hotel and decided what to do about lunch. As usual, the hotel was packed at lunchtime on Sunday, and I had not made a reservation in the restaurant.

While I lingered in the lobby, trying to decide what to do, I was treated to one of Julia Varady's better offstage performances. She was sitting in the lobby with some friends (the same couple who had been in the elevator with F-D), and they were waiting for F-D to join them for lunch in the hotel restaurant. F-D, as I happened to know, was at the Konservatorium, working. After a few minutes, F-D appeared in the main entrance to the hotel lobby and hesitated, looking around to locate his party. Varady got up at once and floated across the lobby, meeting her husband about midway. In front of a packed house, she embraced him, kissed him, straightened his collar, smoothed his hair, and took his briefcase, leading him to their friends. She couldn't have proclaimed her "ownership" any more blatantly. Her spouse, meanwhile, wore a pleased but obviously bemused expression. "I haven't been gone that long," you could imagine him thinking, "Why am I getting the big hello?" But Julia clearly had her own agenda.

That evening, there was a chamber music concert featuring the Cherubini Quartet that included the Trout Quintet. At the press conference to announce next year's program, festival director Gerd Nachbauer had announced that the Cherubini Quartet would soon be disbanding. Apparently all the performers had other commitments and no longer wanted to undertake all the traveling associated with giving concerts together. They would be giving their final performance at the Schwarzenberg "Landpartie" of the Schubertiade in September of 1997.

The next day was my final day in Feldkirch. In the afternoon, F-D and an actress named Thekla Carola Wied read from the correspondence of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. All week long, I had been asking people who Thekla Carola Wied was. "Some TV actress" was the only information I had received. Lo and behold, the TV guide in my hotel room listed a sitcom starring Thekla Carola Wied, and I spent a bemused half hour watching her, dressed as a nun, engaging in all sorts of antics that were supposed to be funny and weren't. Well, that explained the disapproving looks I had seen on the faces of Schubertiade regulars. But I had more serious matters on my mind as I made my way to the Konservatorium for the afternoon reading. I had a miserable cold, and I feared that, despite being dosed to the gills with cold medicine, I would spend the afternoon coughing and sniffling. Can one do anything worse during a performance by Fischer-Dieskau? Fortunately, my cold was under control for most of the performance. I had read a selection of correspondence between Brahms and Clara Schumann, and I had found it to be pretty mundane stuff. In her surviving letters to Brahms, Clara seemed to have a limited number of topics of conversation: how miserable her life was, how many problems she had with her children, how good a pianist she was, how much money she made, and how much money Brahms made. And when she wasn't talking about one of those subjects, she was scolding Brahms for his bad behavior. I couldn't imagine how they could make an interesting conversation out of that material. By and large, they didn't. Parts of it were amusing, but it was not anywhere near as interesting and engrossing as the readings in past years. I also think that there wasn't the same chemistry between F-D and Wied as between F-D and Gert Westphal. And to make matters worse, at the very end of the concert I felt a coughing fit coming on. I suppressed it as best I could, but finally it had its way. So I was disgraced. However, God did not strike me dead, so I lived to attend future readings.

After the performance, a German woman who was a big F-D fan persuaded another woman and me to go backstage with her to get F-D's autograph. We waited outside for a while, and then were admitted to the area outside the green room. However, at that moment Julia Varady and Fischer-Dieskau appeared, both in their overcoats and ready to leave. Julia Varady explained that her husband would not be signing autographs because they had to attend a dinner with the Schubertiade director and would then be leaving immediately to go home. Perhaps another time. And they swept by, he silent and smiling that mysterious little smile. A number of people were highly indignant. How could he let himself be pushed around that way by his wife? I couldn't believe it--she had just done his dirty work for him and they thought he was hen-pecked.

Back at the hotel, we were having coffee before the evening concert when F-D came by on his way upstairs. "Good evening, Herr Brahms," said my journalist friend as he went by. He didn't stop, but we could hear him chuckling as he made his way to the elevator.

That evening, Alfred Brendel played Beethoven sonatas (Op. 109, 110, 111) in a packed Montforthaus. The next morning, while everyone else was getting ready to travel over to Wyberhus to hear Lothar Odinius sing Schumann's Dichterliebe, I boarded a train for Munich, from where I intended to fly to Berlin to meet a friend for the second week of my vacation. This meant that I missed two recitals I would very much have liked to hear, by Matthias Goerne and Christoph Pregardien, but I hoped that there would soon be other occasions to hear them. As usual, I had already made a ticket order for the following year, when the Schubertiade would be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Franz Schubert.

Postscript

I didn't expect to be back again with another installment of this saga, but a recent exchange on lieder-l set me to thinking about the whole question of what being the fan of a particular singer has meant to me, and I wanted to share it with you.

In a recent message, an Opera- List member wrote:

I think you are probably right when you say we are very far apart when it comes to what we want from the people who sing them (Lieder). I first and foremost want a voice that is not just beautiful, but consistent in production with one "voice" not varying voices for different ranges. If I am correct, you care mostly for the expressive, dramatic qualities and other vocal aspects are less important to you. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes, that is a fair assessment, but when I reflect on my thirty-year association with Fischer-Dieskau, I realize that there is a great deal more to say.

To begin with, I could ask myself whether it isn't perhaps a bit strange that whatever drew me to Fischer-Dieskau when I was a sixteen-year-old high school student has lasted for all this time. I really can't think of anything else that I cared about deeply, or that interested me deeply, when I was that age that still holds much significance for me now. I suppose I might just regard myself as a case of selective arrested development and let it go at that, but I really don't find that a very satisfactory assessment of the situation. So what is really going on here?

What made me stop the first day I heard Fischer-Dieskau's voice and say: "That's him. That's the guy I like"? I'm sure there are ways to explain it, but I don't know what they are. But let's just say that some mysterious chemistry arose between us, an "elective affinity," in Goethe's language, that led to--what?

I know it is terribly trite to say that my encounter with Fischer-Dieskau opened new worlds for me, but it did. To begin with, I discovered a genre of music, a language, and a literature that I had previously known nothing about, all of which have enriched my life. Those first years of listening to Fischer-Dieskau sing, whether it was Lieder, opera, or oratorio, took me from one unknown or unappreciated realm to another, and I continue to be very grateful for that. I once heard a college president tell a group of new freshmen that their most important job was to expand and enrich themselves as people. "You are the person with whom you will spend the most time in your life," She told them. "You owe it to yourself to be the most interesting companion for yourself that it is possible to be." I am convinced that Fischer-Dieskau has helped me to be a more interesting companion for myself, and he has been the best of companions to me throughout the greater part of my life.

More importantly, perhaps, growing up with Fischer-Dieskau gave me a way to understand myself, to see myself in relation to the rest of the world, to discover what was important to me, and what was of enduring value. Listening to Fischer-Dieskau and following his career, and absorbing new experiences and insights through the medium of his voice and the music he sang, taught me important things about being human that have extended into every part of my life. It is said that one of the values of education is its civilizing influence on people. I certainly know that my long journey with Fischer-Dieskau has civilized me in countless ways.

Does it matter that Fischer-Dieskau has no idea that this is the case? I have never made a practice of writing him letters or going up to him after concerts and saying, "You have no conception of how much I have learned from you over the years and how much it has meant to me." You may think that someone who has the ego to write F-D & Me would have enough ego to have done that, but I never have. I don't think it matters. I'm sure many people have said those things to him over the years. I did not, but it is true all the same.

So, what attracted me to Fischer-Dieskau in the first place, and what kept me faithful to him all these years? I think that from the beginning I was captured by the distinctiveness of his voice and style in comparison to other singers. I knew from the beginning that he did not sound like other people, and I liked that. I would have been much less interested in F-D if he had had that "consistent" voice the List member refers to, if he had had one voice in all ranges. I was taken from the first with the stark contrast between the bright highs and dark lows of F-D's voice. It made him interesting, it gave him a complexity that I found attractive. I liked his laser-precise diction, his responsiveness to words, his expressiveness, and his willingness to go to extremes in the service of that expressiveness. One of the earliest recordings I owned was his "Schwanengesang" on Angel with Gerald Moore, and it was not "Staendchen" that made an impression on me, but rather "Der Atlas" and, above all, "Der Doppelgnger." Fischer-Dieskau sang: 

Du Doppelgnger, du bleicher Geselle! Was ffst du nach mein Liebesleid, Das mich geqult auf dieser Stelle So mancher Nacht, in alter Zeit?

My hair stood on end. To this day, I am overwhelmed by the flood of emotions that pours out when he sings that passage: horror, loathing, bitterness, resentment, longing, despair. It is immediately present, whether I actually hear it or even if I just recall it. I've heard many people sing the song since, and it is powerful even in less overtly expressive performances, but it was Fischer-Dieskau who made the first, enduring impression. I have seen pictures that capture some of what F-D expressed in that music, and they are not pictures of the Romantic or Biedermeier eras, but rather pictures of the Expressionist era.

To give an example from later in my listening career, there is Mahler's song "Revelge" from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Again, this is a powerful song in any performance, but through the medium of Fischer-Dieskau's singing it has a starkness, a brutality, a sense of horror that used to evoke the image of Albrecht Drer's woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But just recently I saw the PBS series on World War I, and in the footage of trench warfare I saw a much more recent image that captured what I had heard in Fischer-Dieskau's performance of "Revelge" in horrifying detail. The battles themselves, of course, but even more, the incredible destruction and desolation that I had heard in Fischer-Dieskau's voice suddenly stood before me in graphic reality:

Des Morgens stehen da die Gebeine In Reih und Glied sie steh'n wie Leichensteine, Die Trommel steht voran, Dass sie ihn stehen kann.

From the beginning, I wondered why F-D's imagination was so much more powerful than that of other singers, or why he was willing to express what he imagined when they were not. I also wondered why I did not shy away from those stark images that he evoked in song after song. One of the things that bound us together was my affinity for these powerful images and the emotions they expressed. It was surely no accident that I came to write a doctoral dissertation on the nature imagery of Expressionist poet Georg Heym and found that I was quite at home with a poet who could write:

Und eine Mhle fasst der Sonne Haar Und wirbelt ihren Kopf von Hand zu Hand Auf schwarze Au, der langsam sinkt, voll Blut.

I did not realize then, as I do now, that Fischer-Dieskau only happened to be a singer, that in a much more fundamental sense he was a genius (or perhaps a monster) of self-expression. Many years later, while reading Fischer-Dieskau's memoirs, I encountered the following passage, taken from the wartime diary of the nineteen-year-old soldier: "I will, I must bring to the surface what exists in me but is not yet conscious, I must express what it is that inspires me."

I have no idea what motivates most people to embark upon the difficult and perilous career of being singers, but I think it is significant that what motivated Fischer-Dieskau was self-expression. To me, that explains why he did not concern himself first and foremost with whether he would always make beautiful sounds, or whether some day what he was doing would result in damage to his voice. The voice was not an end in itself, but rather a medium of expression, a tool for conveying to others what was in him. Now I know that that was what bound me to him from the beginning, even though many years had to pass before I could even begin to articulate it.

What keeps me listening to Lieder, what takes me to recitals even now when Fischer-Dieskau has ceased to sing? What do I want from singers of Lieder that I rarely find and treasure when I do? I want the occasions of profound concentration, the feeling of being totally absorbed and lost in that which I am hearing. I want the crowded concert hall to disappear, the great space to concentrate itself to the narrowest possible focus and expand to infinity at the very same time. What Fischer-Dieskau demanded of me was everything I had, to concentrate as he was concentrated, to focus as he was focused, to believe and feel, as he did, that in the moment of that concert there was nothing else on earth as important as the music that he sang, the sense and sound that he was there to convey to the audience.

People talk about the sense of being transported. I was transported in every Fischer-Dieskau concert I heard. Somehow, Fischer-Dieskau helped me to sense enormous, unheard of dimensions in myself that mirrored what was revealed in him. Colin Wilson, in a discussion of human beings and their self-imposed limits, compared people in their everyday lives to a man living in the foyer of an enormous house, totally unaware that many rooms lie beyond. With Fischer-Dieskau, I had the sense of being freed to explore those rooms that otherwise I was never able to enter. I have since discovered that other forms of art also provide entry to that otherwise inaccessible space, but it was Fischer-Dieskau who brought me there first and who always provided the most direct and immediate access.

It has always been difficult for me to think of Fischer-Dieskau as a singer like other singers. He was always so much more. He challenged me. He made me think. He moved me more deeply than I have ever been moved. Through him, I experienced every emotion I could imagine. To tell the truth, the "real" world became rather colorless and dull in comparison with the worlds he revealed to me, but what a wonderful refuge when the world outside becomes too much!

One of the things that has kept me faithful to Fischer-Dieskau for more than thirty years is that through him I have learned to accept, even embrace, the contradictions that are so fundamental to being human. Much as I loved the godlike creature who was the Fischer-Dieskau of my adolescence, the superior being who could do anything, feel anything, be anything, as an adult I loved the flawed Fischer-Dieskau, who struggled against his limitations and suffered the consequences of his excesses as a singer. I will always cherish my memories of the aging singer who could still conjure up unimaginable worlds with the shadow of a voice he still possessed, the man who has made the prospect of growing old more tolerable for me. When all is said and done, perhaps the most important thing I learned from Fischer-Dieskau had to do with time. In the same instant he could suspend time and make me painfully conscious of how quickly it was passing. He aged, and I aged with him. His life did not end when he stopped singing, and neither did mine. And as long as I can remember, he can never die.

© Celia A. Sgroi (Originally published in 1997 on Opera-l .)

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