Fischer-Dieskau and Me - Part Four
I was very disappointed when Fischer-Dieskau cancelled his November 1989 recital in New York. In all the years I had been travelling here and there to hear him, he had never cancelled. Undaunted, I started searching the ads to see if I could hear him again in Europe, which proved to be quite easy to do. In 1990 and 1991, I again made summer visits to Europe that were intended primarily as opportunities to hear Fischer-Dieskau sing Lieder. These were successful not only in that I heard additional F-D recitals, but that I heard more opera, as well.
In 1990, I traveled with a Metropolitan Opera Guild tour to Munich and Salzburg. The stop in Munich included three opera performances in addition to a recital by F-D, while the Salzburg part involved an additional three operas. The highlight of the opera part of this visit was Julia Varady as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, which I had hoped to hear the year before. This time she did, in fact, sing, and she proved to be as exciting as an actress as she was as a singer. This was the first of several times that I marveled as the diminutive Varady dominated the stage every moment she was on it. I also liked Peter Seiffert as Don Ottavio. If there was ever a Don Ottavio who did not come across as a "wimp," it was Seiffert. In addition, I heard a pretty routine performance of Der Rosenkavalier and a wonderful Die Meistersinger with an excellent cast: Bernd Weikl as Sachs, Rene Kollo as Walther von Stolzing, Lucia Popp as Eva, Peter Schreier as David, and Kurt Moll as Veit Pogner. However, the undoubted star of the evening was Hermann Prey as Beckmesser. I had heard Prey in 1989 as a somewhat geriatric Figaro in the Munich Nozze and marvelled at how good he still sounded and what a sympathetic actor he was. However, it never occurred to me that the Prey charm could be applied to Beckmesser with such remarkable results. He was just adorable: self-important and a bit waspish in Act I, simply hilarious in his Act II serenade, and pathetic in his failure in the song competition in Act III. The audience was on his side, and next to his charm, Hans Sachs seemed like an old crosspatch. I enjoyed it immensely, but I am convinced that Wagner never had any such thing in mind.
In Salzburg, I heard a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera with Placido Domingo, Leo Nucci, Joesphine Barstow, and Florence Quivar. Sir Georg Solti conducted at a furious pace and with the evident intention of drowning out the singers whenever possible. He succeeded. The next opera I heard was Cosi fan Tutte in the Kleines Festspielhaus, conducted by Riccardo Muti. In particular, I liked Deon van der Walt and Thomas Hampson as Ferrando and Guglielmo, and Ann Murray as Dorabella. My final Salzburg opera was a Eurotrash Fidelio that looked like it was taking place in some South American or Eastern European dictatorship, all leather coats and Uzis, and which seemed to have as its sole intention to offend the audience. It succeeded. Unfortunately, the cast, including Gabriela Benackova, Robert Hale, and Kurt Rydl, was not able to assert itself against the staging. Robert Hale, as Pizarro, did make quite a sinister impression in his leather coat and mirror sunglasses, but Beethoven got lost somewhere.
But of course, the high point of the trip for me was hearing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Lieder, and he did not disappoint. In that year, he and Hartmut Hoell offered a recital devoted solely to the songs of Hugo Wolf. I was a bit disappointed, because I had been hoping for the Schubert/Schumann/Heine program F-D had sung in London in April 1990, but it was not to be. This recital was actually the first performance of the tour, the night we arrived in Munich. I had filled myself with caffeine and done everything I could think of to make sure I would be awake and would stay awake. Again, the recital was in a packed opera house. I sat in the third row, quite far to the left. I always preferred to sit to F-D's right, since he tended to project more in that direction, but this was an excellent seat nonetheless, and no noisy neighbors like last year.
As was the case in 1989, F-D delivered a monster program. I am not a lover of Hugo Wolf, but F-D nearly made a convert of me on this particular evening. Anyway, this was a truly masterful arrangement of songs. So much incredible artistry went into a Fischer-Dieskau recital in terms of program building before he ever opened his mouth and sang a note! The first half started with four songs to poems by Mörike, followed by four songs to poems by Goethe, and ended with three songs to poems by Eichendorff. The second half consisted of songs from the Spanish and Italian Songbooks and ended with three songs to poems by Michelangelo.
There were basically two themes: love and human transitoriness. The love theme predominated. There was love in nearly every aspect: religious love, tenderness and lyricism, love teasing, love-longing, love anger, and the anguish of lost love. The theme of transitoriness was intertwined with the love theme, in the sense that love does not last, or that people grow too old to love (or think they do). There was a marvelous juxtaposition of love as an eternal value and the transitoriness and temporality of human beings. It was incredibly moving. There was also quite a lot of humor-- some very subtle, some sly and mocking, and some rather bitter. One had the feeling that this was essentially an old man's view of love, at once joyous with warm memories of love and touched with anguish at the thought of losing it forever. There was something quite retrospective about this recital. There was a kind of looking back, of summing up, perhaps of someone trying to balance the wisdom and insight of age with the intense, unselfconscious joys and sorrows of youth. There were some very vivid contrasts, but regret seemed to be the prevailing tone. The mood was a bit somber and thoughtful, as Fischer-Dieskau himself seemed to be for most of the evening.
Highpoints: The Michelangelo Lieder, especially the middle one "Alles endet, was entsteht," "Grenzen der Menschheit," which seems to be a better match for Goethe's great poem than Schubert's version, "Wanderers Nachtlied II," "Benedeit die selge Mutter," "Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund," "Phänomen," "Nachtzauber," but actually I liked everything he sang. Some of the contrasts between loud and soft singing, and between the lyric and the declamatory, were unpleasantly harsh, but the overall performance was so moving that there was not much to complain about.
And, as happened in 1989, F-D did some of his loveliest singing in the encores, of which there were six, interspersed among the applause and the flowers. It seemed that F-D routinely set himself monumental programmatic challenges and then had to battle his way to the end of them before he could relax in the encores and--the pressure finally gone--just let go and sing for the sheer pleasure of it. His soft singing was still truly magical, and it was very much in evidence in the encores in particular.
The audience response was wildly enthusiastic: warm, appreciative, lovingly demonstrative. F-D received a ton of flowers and looked really surprised and pleased by them. By the final encore, Hartmut Höll had nearly disappeared behind all the bouquets that decorated the lid of the piano. It was rather strange thing-- The audience didn't want to let him go, at the same time that I could hear people murmuring solicitously about how exhausted he must be. But the consensus seemed to be, if we can squeeze another encore out of him, let's go for it. More than the year before, this had the feeling of a farewell performance. Was that an accurate reading or just my fears talking? I didn't know.
Some other impressions: Hartmut Höll was superb, as usual, a really grand accompanist. He was a real presence, even though he didn't get the limelight, and F-D was certainly demonstrative of his appreciation, as he had good reason to be. F-D looked a lot older to me than he had the year before. He seemed to have put on a bit of weight around the middle, but his face looked thin and worn. And he walked slower-- I have always thought of him with that quick and bounding walk betraying enormous energy, but he has definitely slowed down now. But despite everything, what a magnificent man he was--handsome, charming, charismatic. I noted the considerable number of young girls in the audience who seemed to find him as sexy as hell--and I agreed, of course. In the intermission, an elderly lady in our tour group said, "I never knew Fischer-Dieskau was such a hunk." A hunk? Not a particularly apt word, perhaps, but certainly the right sentiment. There was also a kind of humor evident in F-D's performance that I don't recall from concerts when he was younger. For example, when he sang "Herz, verzage nicht geschwind," from the Spanish Songbook, he became the disappointed lover in a wonderfully humorous way. Julia Varady sat quite close to me during the concert. She never took her eyes off F-D all evening, and she was incredibly enthusiastic and excited both at the intermission and at the end of the concert.
Again, I felt that F-D had become more human to me as he had gotten older (and I have gotten older?). He was not the Lieder machine any more, but someone with frailties and weaknesses, someone who had to fight for survival sometimes, just like real people! It might tarnish his Olympian image somewhat, but it made him very lovable.
In 1991, I returned to Munich with Great Performance Tours, but I travelled to Munich a couple of days early because I wanted to hear F-D sing, which was not part of the tour. The tour program included Der Rosenkavalier, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Boris Godunov, and Der Fliegende Holländer, as well as Tschaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and a Lieder recital by Kurt Moll. I added the F-D recital and a performance of Die Zauberflöte. What I was most looking forward to was F-D and Julia Varady as Senta. As it turned out, everything I heard was memorable, but those were, indeed, the highpoints.
I started with Die Zauberflöte and a seat high up in the balcony. For me, the most impressive performances came from Peter Seiffert as Tamino and Barbara Bonney as Pamina, but the entire cast was good, and the approach was kind of schmaltzy and good-humored. From my seat high in the house, I was astonished at how long the various traps in the stage stayed open after people made their appearances. The lawyer in me couldn't help calculating the liability if someone had the misfortune to fall into one! I enjoyed Der Rosenkavalier much better than the previous year. In 1991, Felicity Lott was the Marschallin, Kurt Moll was Baron Ochs, Ann Murray was Oktavian, and Barbara Kilduff was Sophie. I loved them all, but Kurt Moll pretty much stole the show with his Ochs. Entführung featured excellent performances by Ruth Ann Swenson as Kostanze and Goesta Winbergth as Belmonte, but the sets were kind of tacky looking, and Ruth Ann Swenson seemed a bit dismayed by all the climbing up and down ladders she was forced to do. Again, my mind strayed a bit to personal injury lawsuits. Boris Godunov didn't make much of an impression on me. I was totally unfamiliar with it and had not really prepared for it. Given that it was sung in Russian, I was more than a bit in the dark all evening. I was impressed with all the spectacle, but the only performance that made an impression on me was Kurt Moll as Pimen. The Sleeping Beauty was pretty, but I was the victim of a poor seat with bad sightlines and a neighbor who sang the entire score quite audibly. The Lieder recital on the tour program was Kurt Moll in the Herkulessaal. He sang Lieder by Haydn, Strauss, Wolf, Shostakovich, and Loewe, accompanied by Cord Garben. I like Kurt Moll very much, and he is a native son and favorite in Munich, so he got a warm reception. However, I found his recital a bit boring. His wonderful acting ability on the stage just did not translate well to Lieder. His final selections were several ballads by Loewe. I confess that I dozed off for a while.
I certainly didn't do any sleeping during the Fliegende Holländer! Julia Varady was Senta, Robert Hale was the Dutchman, Peter Seiffert was Erik, and Jaako Ryhaenen was Daland. Wolfgang Sawallisch conducted. The opera was performed without any intermission, and I don't ever recall time going by as swiftly as it did that evening. I had no idea what Varady would be like as Senta. I was only familiar with her as a singer of Mozart. It turned out that she had more than enough voice for Wagner and totally inhabited the role of Senta, both vocally and dramatically. Her obsession with the Dutchman seemed quite normal somehow, not pathological as it often seems to me. The intensity of the scene between Senta and the Dutchman was powerful. Again, I was struck by how someone as small as Varady could be such a dominant force on the stage. She managed to look both very young and very fragile (both of which she was not!), and, amazingly, her German diction was impeccable. Well, she has a good coach at home, I thought, and at the end of the performance, when she took a solo bow, Varady looked up at the box where her husband was sitting and gave a triumphant smile.
Mr. Varady (oops!)--Mr. Fischer-Dieskau gave his Lieder recital before the Great Performances Tour group arrived. I had ordered a ticket by mail, then, because I thought I could do better, did, in fact, buy a better ticket at the box office. It barely took five minutes to unload the original ticket to a Japanese lady who didn't even wait for the change from her 50 Mark bill. The recital, in the opera house, was Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin. This concert was something of a frustrating experience. You wait months for a concert, and it always goes by so quickly, but this time the entire concert lasted a mere hour and fifteen minutes! As I expected, F-D sang Die Schöne Müllerin straight through without an intermission, 20 songs, lasting about one hour. He got an enormous ovation before he ever sang a note. He looked rather embarrassed by that. He was also terribly tense at the beginning of the concert and his voice was really not under control. The first two songs were particularly bad, and it took about six before he had really gotten everything together. Even then, he just couldn't do the things he used to do, and he had to work very hard to do what he still could do. And, unlike in the past, you could see that he was working hard. Everything used to be so effortless, but it wasn't on that evening. He couldn't sustain a long line the way he used to, and he couldn't support his tone as he used to, and some of his pitch was pretty approximate, and the contrast between his loud amd soft singing was more extreme than ever.
And yet, with all that, he still managed to give an impressive performance, with some truly magical moments. Part of the problem was that he just shouldn't have been singing Die Schöne Müllerin at this stage of his career. He hadn't sung it for years, and I couldn't imagine what had made him go back to it now. More than anything I can think of, this is a young man's cycle. Fischer-Dieskau just couldn't give a credible personification of that "role," even though he obviously tried. Let's face it--As a 66-year-old man he was long past the stage where he could die for love, and he really couldn't make you believe in it either. I mean, here was a man who looked like God (minus the beard and the white nightgown) trying to convince you that he was a teenager who would kill himself because his girlfriend betrayed him. It just didn't work-- you might believe that he would suffer, but he wouldn't die--it just wasn't plausible. And being boyish, even at 66, was not an adequate substitute for being a boy. When I heard him sing the cycle in 1968, when he was 43, he could still burn with that feeling that forces the miller boy to kill himself, but that kind of fire just wasn't there any more.
And it wasn't until the final number that there was a complete identification of singer and song, when he was not the boy, but rather the brook, welcoming the boy and protecting him. Because then the feeling required was for the boy or about the boy, and his heartbreak seemed real, but he just couldn't be the boy.
When he finished, there was that long moment of silence while everyone still held their breath, and then the place erupted. There were ovations and bravos and foot-stamping and flowers (in waves, brought by a little man who made a wrong exit after the last delivery), but there were no encores. I had expected that there wouldn't be, but I also don't think F-D had anything left to give that evening. The audience went on clapping and stamping and bravo-ing for a long time, and someone even yelled "Zugabe!", but none was forthcoming. When he took his final bow (after two "final" bows that didn't take), he looked grateful for all the enthusiasm, but it was clear that he wasn't going to change his mind, so people finally gave up.
And in all that time, I think F-D only took 3 solo bows. All the rest were shared with Hartmut Höll, who had played well, and whose performance was just as extreme as F-D's. And, of course, he disappeared without a trace after the performance, leaving a crowd of disappointed fans still waiting at the stage exit.
As I walked back to the Vier Jahreszeiten, I asked myself whether it had been worth coming thousands of miles and spending thousands of dollars for little more than an hour of singing. Yes, it was. But I'm so selfish, I thought, I always want more than I can get. It was so short! And it certainly was far from perfect. But it was wonderfully moving and I was so glad I had heard it. It's a little like sliding down a slope--one song follows another, and the pace quickens, and the mood darkens, and finally only the brook is left to wrap everything up. And you're so sad, and so moved. F-D looked a lot better than he sounded. It ought to be illegal to keep looking better every year you get older. He started out doing quite a lot of physical acting, but when he got his voice under control that all disappeared. In the second half of the cycle, he hardly moved, letting his voice and his face do it all.
I wondered if I would ever hear F-D again. Christopher Clark, the director of Great Performance Tours, told me that he had been at the Schubertiade Hohenems before he had come to Munich and had heard F-D sing Die Schöne Müllerin accompanied by Andras Schiff. He had reserved a block of tickets for the 1992 Schubertiade, including Fischer-Dieskau's recital. Would I be interested? What a question!
In due time, Great Performance Tours advertised a trip to the Schubertiade Hohenems for June, 1992, and I reserved a place on the tour. The actual venue of the concerts was Feldkirch, the oldest city in the Voralberg, in Western Austria. As a college student, I had studied briefly in Bregenz, the capital of the Voralberg, and I remembered Feldkirch and Hohenems from that time. It seemed to be a pleasant coincidence to be returning to that part of the world.
The Schubertiade Hohenems had been in existence since 1976. One of its co-founders was Hermann Prey, who wanted to have a festival at which all of Schubert's works would be performed in chronological order. There is no historical connection between Franz Schubert and Hohenems, but there is a palace there with a beautiful wood-paneled room called the Rittersaal, which made an lovely setting for chamber concerts. The count who owned the palace agreed to make it available for the festival, and the city of Hohenems put up a considerable sum of money to carry out needed restorations to the palace.
Prey's association with the Schubertiade Hogenems only lasted a few years. He was succeeded (or perhaps ousted is the more accurate word) by people who wished to reorganize the festival to make it more commercially viable, which meant not trying to perform Schubert's works chronologically, but rather putting together more attractive programs. As the years went by, the festival began to include music by other composers, in addition to Schubert, but the focus remained on Lieder and chamber music. The festival featured many established musicians, but it also provided an opportunity to hear young artists. Fischer-Dieskau first appeared at the Schubertiade in 1983; however, he insisted on performing in a concert hall considerably larger than anything available in Hohenems. For the first couple of years, his recitals were given in Bregenz, a fair distance from Hohenems; then they were moved to the Montforthaus in Feldkirch, which was much closer. Apparently relations between the Count and the festival deteriorated, and, despite the money he had received from the city of Hohenems, the Count decided to terminate his association with the Schubertiade. In 1992, all the concerts were scheduled in Feldkirch, but the festival still bore the name Schubertiade Hohenems.
I flew to Zurich and met the other members of the tour group. We travelled by bus to Feldkirch, a trip of perhaps an hour and a half. Feldkirch lies in the extreme western part of the Voralberg, only a few miles from the Swiss border, and right along the border of the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. The city is pretty well surrounded by the mountains of the western Alps, and the Bregenzer Wald and Lake Constance lie a short distance to the north. A short distance to the south are Schruns and other towns known for skiing and winter sports. The old part of Feldkirch still contains many medieval buildings, and there is a small fortress called the Schattenburg that sits on a steep cliff overlooking the city. The river Ill cuts through the old city, and a music conservatory in a fine old 18th century building is situated on the banks of the river. Feldkirch boasts two good concert halls fairly close to each other, the Konservatoriumssaal, located in the conservatory, which seats 500, and the Montforthaus, which seats about 1000. In addition, chamber concerts were sometimes scheduled in the courtyard of the Schattenburg or in an outdoor location near the conservatory called the Waldbühne. The city of Feldkirch wanted to establish itself as a tourist center, and capturing the Schubertiade from Hohenems was considered a coup. Feldkirch tried its best to put on a good face for visitors, in hopes of return business.
We stayed at what was then the largest hotel in Feldkirch, the Illpark, which was right next door to the Montforthaus and just a few blocks from the conservatory. It was a reasonably modern and comfortable hotel of no particular distinction, but it promised air conditioning (not always delivered) and employed a pleasant and helpful staff. My room looked out on a large square next to the hotel, called the Leonhardsplatz, and in the distance were high mountains with snow still on them. Framed posters of artists performing at the festival were displayed in the lobby, and the shops in town had posters in the display windows, much as in Salzburg. The Schubertiade takes up the last two weeks in June, but our tour program covered about a week right in the middle of the festival. As is customary with Great Performance Tours, there were some planned activities for the tour group members, but there was also a good deal of free time. Every hotel room boasted a schedule of the festival concerts. After settling in, changing money, and other such tasks, I found my way to the ticket office of the Schubertiade to see whether tickets were available for concerts not included in the GPT program. In particular, I had learned that Fischer-Dieskau was giving a reading on one the mornings we would be in Feldkirch, and on another morning Brigitte Fassbaender and Hans Hotter were holding a "conversation" about teaching singing and preparing young Lieder singers. I ended up buying tickets to both of those events, as well as a couple of extra concerts. While I was trying to find the ticket office, I met a friendly and energetic elderly lady from Hannover who had come to Feldkirch to hear Brigitte Fassbaender. We found the ticket office together and got acquainted.
Our first concert, in the Konservatoriumssaal, was a performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde performed by Brigitte Fassbaender and Uwe Heilmann, accompanied by pianist Cyprien Katsaris. I was suffering from the usual jet lag, but I was tremendously impressed by the beauty and power of Fassbaender's voice and the intensity of her performance. Uwe Heilmann, who was suffering from a cold, made his greatest impression by dashing on and off the stage so he could blow his nose. I was amazed at how "orchestral" Katsaris made the accompaniment sound.
I should perhaps mention that the "stars" of the 1992 Schubertiade Hohenems were Fischer-Dieskau, Fassbaender, pianist Andras Schiff, who was giving a series of recitals of Schubert sonatas, Peter Schreier, and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who was conducting four orchestra concerts after we were scheduled to leave. However, we would be hearing F-D, Fassbaender, Schiff, and Schreier during our stay in Feldkirch.
The following morning I got myself over to the conservatory for an 11 o'clock recital of Schubert sonatas by Andras Schiff. I have never been able to make the same kind of connection to purely instrumental music that I do to voices, and when I do listen to chamber music, I generally prefer strings, but I still enjoyed the program and was astounded by the rich, full sound of the Bösendorfer piano Schiff played. That evening, we heard Barbara Hendricks, accompanied by Ralf Gothoni, in a recital of songs by Mozart, Wolf, and Schubert. The program was well sung, but I found Hendricks rather too much of an objectivist for my taste. The audience didn't agree and applauded enthusiastically.
The Schubertiade schedules performances at 11 AM, 4 PM, and 8 PM, although all the time slots are not used every day. However, there are times when you can hear concerts 3 times a day, if you have the money and the stamina for it. Our next concert was at 4 PM, an orchestra concert devoted to works by Beethoven and Schubert, featuring violinist Thomas Zehetmair. The orchestra was the Vorarlberg Symphony, and I swear that half the audience in the Montforthaus, which was packed to the rafters, consisted of relatives of either the soloist, the conductor, or members of the orchestra. At the end, the applause was thunderous.
When the concert was over, I stopped in the lobby of the theatre to buy a bound copy of all the festival programs. When I left to return to the hotel, I found myself walking behind Fischer-Dieskau and his secretary, Diether Warneck. The two men parted in front of the Illpark, and F-D entered the hotel alone, followed by Celia Sgroi. The foyer of the hotel is small, and there are only two elevators. Gradually, a half dozen people collected in front of the elevators. F-D hovered on the edges of this group, managing to be highly unobtrusive, and entered the elevator last, right behind Celia Sgroi, who had a distinct feeling of being loomed over. Once in the elevator, of course, he was recognized. A member of my tour group grabbed him by the arm and shook him. "Say, aren't you Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau?" she said. He smiled and answered her in English. "Yes, I have to admit it." Faced with the inevitable, F-D smiled very nicely, and his dimples were very much in evidence throughout the following exchange. The woman then said, "Do you remember an opera singer, an American, named Gene Ferguson? He sang with you a long time ago." F-D said that he didn't recall the name. She replied, "Well, he's our choir director at home, and he says he sang with you and he killed you three times on the stage." There was a slight pause, while F-D digested this, then he asked: "In what opera?" "I don't know!" the woman replied. At that point F-D caught my eye, and I said, "Apparently he only remembers that he killed you." He grinned: "Well, that's something, at least." Then a voice from the back of the elevator car said in German, "You are the greatest Mandryka in the world." Again F-D smiled and said thank you, but added deprecatingly, "That was all a very long time ago." At that point the elevator reached my floor and I exited, leaving F-D with several more floors to go.
This exchange sparked a fair amount of conversation among members of the tour group over the next day or two. What are the possible replies when someone asks, "Aren't you Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau?" Can you deny it? Is it good form to address a famous singer who is trapped, so to speak, in an elevator with a bunch of strangers? And, of course, there were other elevator stories. David Roper, the GPT tour group leader, had the best one, in my opinion. He once found himself riding alone in an elevator with an unusually svelte Luciano Pavarotti. Pavarotti whipped open his suit jacket and said proudly: "85 pounds!" "Congratulations," replied David, not sure how to respond.
Anyway, I won't pretend I didn't enjoy my elevator ride in close proximity to Fischer-Dieskau, and I checked him out pretty thoroughly (but discreetly!) when the opportunity presented itself. If anyone ever looked like a million dollars in a very subtle way, it was F-D, from the silk shirt and tie to the handmade shoes. Up close, he was just as handsome as from a great distance in a concert hall. Walking behind him to the hotel, I was impressed by how braod his shoulders were and how narrow his hips-- I imprinted on the Pillsbury Doughboy, you must remember--and how erect his carriage. He looked good for a man of 67, but made no attempt to appear younger than he was. In the elevator, during the story of the singer who had killed him three times, his impish smile was very much in evidence. I can't say that my first close encounter with F-D was a disappointment.
Actually, one of the pleasant sidelights of the Schubertiade is the fact that one encounters the artists all over the place--in the hotels, in restaurants, in the shops, attending concerts, or sitting outside having a drink on the Leonhardsplatz. Over the week I was in Feldkirch, I encountered Hans Hotter, Brigitte Fassbaender, Andras Schiff, Alfred Brendel, Julia Varady, Peter Schreier, Olaf Baer, and many others. Each time the tour group got together, someone else had a tale of running into a performer he or she admired.
The next day I heard Andras Schiff in the morning (a concert also attended by Fischer-Dieskau) and Margaret Price, accompanied by Graham Johnson, in the evening. Price sang an all-Schumann program. She began with the Op. 35 Kerner-Lieder, followed by some songs to poems by Robert Reinick, and finished with 8 songs from the Liederalbum fuer die Jugend. Margaret Price's voice was very beautiful, but she seemed very uncomfortable with the first two groups of songs she sang, almost as if they felt too small for her somehow. When she got to the last group, which was more extroverted and more dramatic, she blossomed and seemed to find complete identification with the songs she sang. After the concert, there was considerable discussion about appropriate dress for Lieder recitals. Margaret Price had worn a red gown with an all-over floral pattern and a rather distracting ruffle. I have to say that she looked like a sofa turned on one end. However, she certainly sounded great.
The following day started in the Konservatoriumssaal with Brigitte Fassbaender and Hans Hotter discussing the activity of teaching young singers and preparing them to sing Lieder. The two singers sat in armchairs on the stage and chatted--with each other and occasionally with the audience. It was by no means a lecture, but, as advertised, a conversation. There was a good deal of humor along the way. I couldn't get over how good Hans Hotter looked. I had seen him up close in the lobby of our hotel and simply couldn't believe that he was over 80. On the stage, he was relaxed and good-humored, and periodically played an amiable straight man to Fassbaender's jokes. And the voices! It was like being wrapped in two different shades of dark velvet. A most enjoyable experience. Other tour group members, who did not speak German, were envious.
That evening, in the Montforthaus, Fischer-Dieskau sang his recital, accompanied by Hartmut Höll. It was an all-Schubert program consisting of Lieder that I deduce must be among his favorites, since he sang and recorded them so often. The first half of the program consisted of "An den Mond," "Hoffnung," "Der Strom," "Der Wanderer," "Freiwilliges Versinken," "Der Zwerg," "Wehmut," and "Totengräbers Heimwehe." The last three, in particular had me on the edge of my seat. The second half consisted of "Auf der Bruck," "Des Sängers Habe," "Am Fenster," "Fischerweise," "Das Zügenglöcklein," "Der Kreuzzug," "Des Fischers Liebesglück," and "Die Sterne." The second half began with a little mishap. Fischer-Dieskau simply dried up in the second verse of "Auf der Bruck." He kept singing, repeating a line or two he remembered, and trying to find his way back to the actual text, all the while sending pleading looks at Hartmut Höll, who didn't seem able to help. Finally he got back on track and finished the song to the words as written. It was amusing to watch the whole process. Again, F-D turned out to be reassuringly human. When he lost the text, he got a stricken look on his face, and his volume dropped precipitously for a moment, then he just soldiered on until he found his place again. No Lieder machine there! The last four songs of the program, starting with "Das Zügenglöcklein," were simply magical. "Die Sterne" closed with soft singing as beautiful as any I have ever heard from him. Actually, he sang about six encores, including a gorgeous "Nacht und Träume" and "Selige Welt," and ending with "Abschied" from Schwanengesang. When he sang "Ade," the audience got the point and chuckled. For some reason, however, even though I know those encores came afterward, my enduring memory of the last time I heard F-D in a live recital is of the final stanza of "Die Sterne": "Und wenn ich einst liebe/ Seid hold dem Verein/ Und euer Geflimmer/ Lasst Segen uns sein." Of course, at the time I didn't know I was hearing him sing for the last time. I did know that, as had been the case with Die Schöne Müllerin the year before, F-D had precious little left in the way of vocal resources. He used what he still had in a remarkably effective way, but he had reached the point where far too often you were more aware of what he could no longer do than of what he still could do.
The next day started with another Schubert piano sonata program by Andras Schiff (this time attended by both Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady). In the evening, Brigitte Fassbaender sang Winterreise, accompanied by Wolfram Rieger. I should perhaps mention that, from the moment we arrived in Feldkirch, we were aware of the enormous Brigitte Fassbaender groupie contingent, which was very much in evidence. Lesbian couples were everywhere. Quite a few wore their hair extremely short and corresponding masculine attire. A couple of young women had what I can only describe as very attractive "boy" haircuts, and in fact they were constantly being mistaken for boys. These I took in stride. I confess, however, that I was astonished by the Brigitte Fassbaender lookalikes: same hairstyle, same mode of dress, etc. That I found a bit weird. There were many posters of Fassbaender in the shop windows. The photograph on the poster was really gorgeous, with the kind of "bedroom eyes" people fantasize about. And it wasn't unusual to see people standing in front of them, looking a bit moony. The BF groupies attended all her performances in force and crowded into the green room afterwards to speak to her, bring her flowers and gifts, and generally bask in the presence. Dragged along to one of these happenings by the elderly lady from Hannover, I noted that Fassbaender had relatively limited patience with all this demonstrativeness. When she cut someone short or didn't respond as expected, this behavior was blamed on the malevolent influence of her partner, Jenny.
Anyway, the Montforthaus was jammed for her Winterreise, and the atmosphere was electric. I think this was about the darkest Winterreise I had ever heard. It started with the wanderer in deep despair and got worse, although I can't exactly explain how. By the time it was over, I was drained emotionally. I'm not sure it would be my Winterreise of choice for all time, but it was a great experience. The two "boys" sat a row ahead of us and taped the performance without even bothering to hide it, which outraged one of our tour group members greatly. However, when she reported this to one of the Schubertiade staff, she misidentified the girls in question as boys, so nothing came of it.
The next day was our final day at the Schubertiade. I found my way to a somewhat more distant auditorium to hear F-D give a reading from his recently published biography of composer Johann Friedrich Reichardt. Although the auditorium boasted an elevated stage, F-D sat at a table at audience level, which meant that most of the people in the room could not see him. The passages he read contained a great many unfamiliar names and dates and were pretty dry, although interspersed with some amusing anecdotes. The best part of it was that F-D had a dozen different voices for the characters he described, including some wonderful "old man" voices: hoarse and gruff for Kaiser Friedrich, rather waspish for Goethe, a shaky falsetto for Haydn. However, the highpoint of the performance had nothing to do with what was being read. F-D paused in his reading, and in the brief silence a woman stood up and bellowed: "Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is a murderer!" There was horrified silence. I waited for the shooting to begin, but thankfully it didn't. The woman, who it turned out had been stalking F-D for years, apparently only wanted his attention, but he simply ignored her until she was finally removed. Afterward, he continued his reading as if nothing had happened. The incident didn't really amount to anything, but it was unpleasant nonetheless, and it put rather a different light on the lack of security and easy accessibility to all the performers at the Schubertiade.
That evening, we heard our final concert. Peter Schreier sang songs by Mendelssohn and Schumann's "Dichterliebe," accompanied by Hartmut Höll. I had not heard Schreier before live, and his voice had always struck me as being very unattractive. He proved to be a wonderful recitalist, however, and somehow in a live concert the harsh, bleating quality of his voice didn't bother me as it did on record. I enjoyed the concert thoroughly and marveled that I had heard three legendary recitalists on three consecutive evenings.
The next day, the tour group boarded the bus to return to Zurich and fly back to the U.S. By that time I had already made a ticket order for the following year and reserved a hotel room at the Illpark. Fischer-Dieskau was scheduled to give a recital of Beethoven Lieder, accompanied by Andras Schiff, and hold a four-day master class. In January 1993, however, a letter arrived from the Schubertiade management to announce that Fischer-Dieskau had retired from singing and the performances were cancelled.
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