Fischer-Dieskau and Me - Part Three
It's not unusual for new lawyers to struggle and lack confidence. Most of them get over it, and some become very good lawyers. What I found out very rapidly is that the practice of law did not suit my temperament at all. I didn't like the conflict and the adversarial nature of the law, and I didn't like most of my clients. "A lawyer is not a social worker," my father told me soon after I went to work with him, and he was right. Law is not a helping profession. Many people come to terms with this sooner or later. I couldn't and wasn't sure I wanted to.
It occurred to me that life might be easier if I got out of private practice and went to work for one of the many government agencies that employ lawyers, but then I would be letting my father down, and I didn't want to do that. However, things are not always as they seem. In the nearly four years between the time my father suggested that I become a lawyer and join him in his practice and the time I actually did so, things had changed with him, too. He was now in his early sixties and thinking very seriously of retirement. When we finally got all this straightened out, both of us were relieved, and I set about the task of looking for a different kind of job. One of the first things I did was send a letter to the Oswego County District Attorney inquiring whether he had any openings for Assistant D.A.'s. I didn't really want to be a prosecutor, but letting someone else pay while I gained experience as a lawyer didn't seem like a bad idea. When my father pointed out that in Oswego County the D.A. was also the coroner, that dampened my enthusiasm more than a little, but the letter was already sent by that time.
I got a very prompt reply from the District Attorney. He called and said that he did not have any openings in his office but that he had been impressed by my resume and had forwarded it to a faculty member at SUNY Oswego, where they were searching for someone to teach full-time in their Public Justice program, in which the D.A. taught Criminal Law as an adjunct professor. I thanked him and forgot about it until I received a call from the Public Justice program coordinator at SUNY Oswego, asking if I would be willing to be interviewed for a teaching position. Given that I had started out wanting to teach, I agreed to be interviewed.
At about the same time, I was offered the job of part-time law clerk to the Oswego County Family Court judge, which I promptly accepted. Doing research and drafting opinions suited me a lot better than banging heads with unruly clients. I had barely started my work for the Family Court when I was asked to interview for the college teaching job. What the folks at SUNY Oswego wanted was someone who could teach a basic Introduction to Law course that focused on non-criminal law and, most importantly, someone who could teach comparative legal systems. I didn't know anything about comparative legal systems, but one thing a lawyer learns very quickly is not to turn down work--I could learn about the subject, couldn't I? And there was more than a month before I had to teach it, wasn't there? No problem. I can do it, I told the interviewers, and they chose to believe me. The salary wasn't very high, but they didn't object to my keeping the part-time clerkship, so I accepted the job and became a teacher after all, even though I still wasn't exactly sure what Public Justice was supposed to be.
So, in the Fall of 1980, I began my career as an instructor at SUNY Oswego, which I juggled with my clerkship. I won't try to say that it was easy, but I could feel the difference immediately. In the practice of law, everything had felt alien, whereas I took to the life of a college faculty member quite naturally. And even though my students had some traits in common with many of my former clients (especially the criminals and the bankrupts), it was a totally different relationship, and teaching was an activity that I enjoyed.
For a time I was so absorbed in my new jobs that I didn't quite notice that no F-D recitals were being announced. When several years went by, however, I became alarmed. At first I assumed that the worst had happened and that he had decided to retire and devote himself to conducting, but that didn't seem to be the case. At this time, I was too busy and too short of money to think seriously of traveling to Europe to hear F-D sing, and there were still records to listen to, so I reconciled myself to doing without live FiDi for a while.
However, things were not very calm on the FiDi front around then. After years of being every critic's favorite baritone, Fischer-Dieskau was coming in for a great deal of negative comment. At first, I found this very hard to take, especially the ad hominem character of much that was written. The criticisms were of two different kinds, however, those that expressed displeasure with F-D's current recordings and those that expressed displeasure with his entire approach to singing and everything about him. While I hated and was distressed by the latter, I more or less went to school on the former. The fact was that the critics were describing phenomena I could hear myself. Yes, the voice was in decline. Yes, there was far too much barking and snarling going on. Yes, he was picking songs apart and overemphasizing words and syllables to the detriment of the music. I could hear those things, but I didn't know how to evaluate them. I wasn't really familiar with the concept of vocal crisis, but I guess I recognized one when I heard it. Was this the end, then?
This raised another question that I had considered briefly in the past but never really dealt with: Was I a Lieder fan or merely a Fischer-Dieskau fan? If the former, then life would go on after F-D's retirement, even if I would miss him greatly. If the latter, I would either have to sit home with my recordings or be out of business all together. I had occasionally attended live recitals by other singers, although I was never willing to go to the extreme lengths that I routinely went to to hear F-D. Due to a relative lack of funds, however, I had rarely bought recordings by other Lieder singers. There were a few exceptions. I had a wonderful recording of Elly Ameling and Joerg Demus performing Schubert Lieder, including "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen." When Ameling sang "Die Vögel," which I only knew from hearing Fischer-Dieskau, I had to laugh out loud. So, that's the way Schubert had intended this song to sound-- a light, silvery voice floating over the fluttering bird wings in the piano part! When F-D sang it, the birds sounded like a 757 trying to land. I also had Janet Baker singing Schubert on LP, the collection that has just been re-issued on CD. Again, she sang some of the songs I had come to know through Fischer-Dieskau in new and enlightening ways. I loved the way F-D sang "Die Götter Griechenlands," for instance, but I loved Baker, too. Another LP I had bought featured Brigitte Fassbaender singing a collection of "Zigeunerlieder" by various composers. Some of the songs were of little interest to me, but the voice appealed to me at once. Conversely, I had tried Elisabeth Schwarzkopf but just couldn't get anywhere with her. She seemed to make a practice of the nitpicking that was causing me such distress in the later F-D performances, and I just couldn't warm up to her.
You will notice that I haven't mentioned any male singers. That was a bit more difficult. When baritones sang the same Lieder repertoire as Fischer-Dieskau, they rarely pleased me. On the other hand, I liked Peter Schreier in the Schumann duets collection with F-D and Varady and was willing to listen to him sing Lieder, even though it was not the most attractive tenor voice I had ever heard. I tried Fritz Wunderlich, but I just couldn't accept him as a singer of Lieder. It was a gorgeous voice, and I loved him as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, for instance, and there was a popular song collection of his that I nearly wore out on LP, but in Lieder he seemed too uninvolved and superficial. Although I liked Peter Schreier, I couldn't get anywhere with Peter Pears. The voice repelled me, and his approach to Schubert (even though I had read enormous praise of the Pears-Britten Schubert performances) just didn't work for me.
I struggled with all these matters, but I really didn't have to reach a conclusion as long as our FiDi continued to sing, even though he insisted on doing it far away from me. I did notice that the negative criticisms were nearly always reactions to recordings rather than live performances. Maybe if one just avoided the recordings that continued to pour forth, everything would be okay. And there were other FiDi matters of interest during that time. In 1981, Kenneth Whitton published Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Mastersinger. I read it with great interest, of course, and no little amusement. And I thought I was a fan!! I shook my head over the uncritical nature of much of what Whitton wrote, at the same time that I envied him all the live F-D performances he had experienced and the professional contact with F-D associated with his translation of F-D's Schubert book and other projects. And it occurred to me that, although Whitton claimed F-D as a "friend," he really seemed to know little more about F-D's private life than I did.
I should mention that I had read F-D's Schubert book and liked it a lot, as well as the Wagner and Nietzsche book, which I didn't like so much. The thing that bothered me about both books was the unscholarly way F-D handled his sources. I was enough of an academic to want footnotes, if nothing else. I know the books are not intended to be scholarly works in that sense, but in fact I wasn't sure what they were supposed to be, other than to demonstrate that F-D had a strong interest in biography. This impression continued with F-D's book about Schumann. I also asked myself how this man found the time to write any books at all with all the other work he did. For someone struggling to teach and write, this was a vexing question.
In 1985, I found myself reading the increasingly distressing exchange between Will Crutchfield and Conrad L. Osborne that appeared in Opus, in "honor" of F-D's 60th birthday. This was as much a debate about criticism as it was about Fischer-Dieskau, but he took quite a beating in the process. Not surprisingly, I agreed more with Crutchfield than with Osborne, but I didn't entirely diasgree with Osborne either. Some of what he said about F-D made sense to me, even though I hated the snippy tone of what he wrote. And I agreed wholeheartedly with Crutchfield when he pointed out that Osborne's writing style was the functional equivalent of F-D's singing style, which Osborne so deplored. One for our side!, I thought, but still found it fascinating that one could deplore in others what one might not even recognize in oneself.
By 1987, when Fischer-Dieskau's memoirs, Nachklang, appeared, I was a tenured associate professor in the Department of Public Justice at SUNY Oswego. I had spent almost four years (1983-1986) as Assistant to the President for Legal Affairs and Employee Relations, but I had continued to teach at least one course per semester during that time and was very active in departmental affairs. Now I was back to being a full-time faculty member and enjoying it immensely after the rough waters of the President's office. Nachklang appealed to me from the first moment. I know it aggravates many people because it is not a conventional autobiography or memoir. With the exception of the first few chapters, it is not organized chronologically, but rather by theme--memories of conductors, of singer colleagues, of composers, etc., and even in those chapters things jump around from year to year in a rather alarming way. I recall one critic noting with amazement that the description of the death of F-D's first wife, Irmgard Poppen, surfaces in a discussion of Benjamin Britten. Some of the critical objections, like the fellow who wrote a review for the New York Times Book Review section, who complained that F-D's memoirs were not on the same literary level as Nabakov's, or the other reviewer who suggested that the book would have been more interesting as an "as told to" work, I dismissed with nothing more than exasperation, but the organizational question was more serious. Why did Nachklang look the way it did? Actually the key to the matter is contained in the introduction, in which F-D said quite explicitly that he regarded Nachklang not as a conventional memoir, but as a book about memory. And that is what you get: Memories bring to light other memories, and each chapter is a chain of associations. This is, of course, how memory works. Most of the time, people treat these memory "loops" as raw material to reorganize into other forms, but F-D chose to leave them pretty much the way they were. It is, in a very literal sense, a book of memories.
There were a great many other things about Nachklang that interested me. For one thing, I found the early chapters, in which F-D recalls his childhood and growing up in the Third Reich, fascinating and enlightening. Here was a shy and lonely child who lived, in large part, in a self- contructed world populated by images and characters from literature, music, and painting, a child who thought he was ugly and that everybody was repelled by him, who wanted acclaim and validation. The stories of his youthful efforts to attract girls, which always ended in failure, were told with the gentle irony of distance, but were revealing nonetheless. And the struggle with the guilt associated with Nazism, the feeling of needing to atone for crimes committed in his name as a German, said much about the way he acted as an adult artist. In addition, I found the stories about the rebuilding of artistic life in Germany after the collapse of the country at the end of World War II fascinating. F-D is a good storyteller (orally, not just in writing) and the era comes alive in his recollections in Nachklang. All of this fueled a curiosity I had had for some time about how F-D had developed as an artist. How did a person become a Fischer-Dieskau? And from that, how did any person become an artist of stature? One way this curiosity manifested itself was in my search for very early recordings of Fischer-Dieskau. I wanted to know what he sounded like from as close to day one as possible, to be able to understand what came afterwards.
Around the same time, Wolf-Eberhard von Lewinski published a little book about Fischer-Dieskau that consisted mainly of interviews, or "conversations" with F-D about a range of subjects pertaining to F-D's art, career, and interests. As had been the case with Nachklang, these conversations revealed a face of Fischer-Dieskau with which I was not familiar, especially his humor, his irony, and his strongly held, at times aggressively argued, often unconventional, opinions about art. For those of us who wondered, as Gerald Moore once put it, "what manner of man this phenomenon was," these works were a goldmine of information and impressions.
And at about the same time came the announcement that Fischer-Dieskau would be returning to New York to give, among other engagements, three Lieder recitals at Carnegie Hall. The concerts were offered as a kind of mini-subscription, and I bought tickets to all three. As the concerts in the spring of 1988 approached, I found myself wondering what I was going to hear and feeling some real apprehension.
The Fischer-Dieskau Lieder recitals I heard in the spring of 1988 took place on a Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, March 22nd, 24th, and 27th. I traveled to New York on the Tuesday and returned to Oswego on Friday, then flew back to New York with a friend to hear the Sunday performance, which was at 4 PM, and returned to Oswego that evening. I don't recall whether SUNY Oswego was on spring break at the time or whether I just blew off a few days of classes.
The recitals I was to hear had been preceded by a performance of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder with the New York Philharmonic under Sinopoli, which garnered a positive review from the New York Times. That was encouraging, because certainly the evidence of recent recordings suggested that "past his prime" was a generous description of F-D's present vocal estate. I confess to being nearly as nervous the evening of the first of these concerts as I was the first time I ever heard F-D.
I had unusually good seats for this series, Row E, in a perfect location. That had suggested to me that tickets had perhaps not sold as well for this series of F-D concerts as in the past, and a look at the hall that first evening confirmed it. Carnegie Hall was well-filled, but it was not packed, as it had always been before. Eight years is a long time to be away, and no doubt others had been reading the negative reviews as well.
The first concert was an all-Schumann recital. When Fischer-Dieskau came out onto the stage, I was astonished by his expression. The man looked anxious, even a bit scared, as if he wasn't sure what his reception would be like. He was greeted by an enormous wave of applause, and the look of relief was plain to see. The opening group of three songs to poems by Rueckert was a little subdued, but then, F-D was always a bit of a slow starter at recitals, which is why I have always been amazed that he used to make a practice of beginning Schubert recitals with "Erlkönig." He must have done some extra warming up on those evenings. The second group, two songs to poems by Lenau, started with a beautiful "Meine Rose," and the final group of the first half consisted of three Heine songs: "Balsatzar," "Es leuchtet meine Liebe," and "Die beiden Grenadiere." By that time, the old Fischer-Dieskau was very much in evidence and the audience was applauding wildly. The second half of the concert started with four songs to poems by Hans Christian Andersen followed by two Eichendorff songs, "Der Einsiedler," which has always been a particular favorite of mine, and "Der Schatzgräber." The final group consisted of Geibel songs, ending with "Der Contrabandiste." F-D ripped through this last number with remarkable flexibility and control for a 63-year-old singer and ended with a triumphant grin, as if to say, "See? I can still do it!" The audience agreed and erupted into prolonged cheers and ovations.
I can't tell you how happy and relieved I was. It was a grand concert, and my hero was still intact and riding high. Moreover, F-D looked wonderful, and though he may not have sounded as he did in his prime, he displayed more than enough voice and technique to do what he wanted to do. For years I had been hearing all sorts of dire rumors about the bad state of his health. He certainly didn't look ill that evening; in fact, he was positively blooming. Why didn't I remember what a handsome man he is? I found myself wondering. Nevertheless, I had still witnessed something I had never expected to see. F-D had looked so worried at the beginning of that concert, revealing a vulnerability that I had simply not expected. I had been listening to Fischer-Dieskau and had been the most devoted of fans for over twenty years, and yet, for the first time, I think, I asked myself some disturbing questions. Could it be that performing like this is difficult for him? Could it be that he's scared when he has to do this? Could it be that, at some level at least, he's not confident about the outcome?
As purely a listener, a member of an audience, be it for a live or a recorded performance, I had no conception of what it took to do what Fischer-Dieskau had just done. I knew as a teacher that my "performances" in the classroom varied considerably, depending on how well-prepared I was, how I felt that day, whether the material I was teaching really engaged me, what sort of response I got from the students in the class. I knew that those things were factors that must affect how a singer does what he or she does. But not Fischer-Dieskau, surely. He was not an ordinary mortal like me, or was he? I think it was then that my relationship with Fischer-Dieskau entered a new phase, beginning with the recognition that he was a human being, as I was, not a musical abstraction captured on vinyl, that he was not perfect and never had been, and that actually the gulf between Fischer-Dieskau, the idol, and Celia Sgroi, the devoted fan, was not so great as I had once imagined.
Don't ask me why it took twenty-three years for me to realize this. In the early days of my infatuation, fandom, whatever the correct term is, I think it was important to me that Fischer-Dieskau should be perfect. He should be a being apart from ordinary mortals, someone who could always be relied upon to be at his best--never tired, never out of sorts, never achieving less than the very best. And the early Lieder recordings I listened to seemed to confirm that impression. They were F-D in his prime, at the height of his powers, seemingly able to do whatever he wanted with no effort at all. I had neither the will, nor the knowledge, nor the experience to see behind the "perfection" that came to me from the recordings, much less to recognize that it wasn't perfection at all. Why are we so obsessed with things being perfect anyway? I truly don't know. It's a question for the philosophers, I guess. I do know that as I got older, I gradually became aware that I was never going to be perfect, that I had never met a person who was. But F-D remained perfect in my eyes for a long time after that, perhaps because I didn't know him and it was easy for him to stay an abstract ideal who would never disappoint me.
But then, of course, had come the sobering-up period with the obviously less-than-perfect (more accurately, nowhere-near-perfect) recordings and the critical discussions about "what's wrong with Fischer-Dieskau" to cast a different light on matters. I suppose at that point I had several choices of response. For one thing, I could simply ignore what I was hearing and reading and stand steadfast in my fandom, denying that there was anything wrong with my idol. For another, I could reject him, the once-perfect idol who had proven not to be perfect, and find some other object for my devotion. I had moments of wavering toward the former, but the latter never even crossed my mind. FiDi and I were in this for the long haul, for some reason, and I wasn't going to abandon him now. Of course, the other possibility was that I could do some reassessing, some further growing up, perhaps, and recognize that human beings may strive for perfection but we never reach it, even though there are individual moments, accomplishments, works of art that seem like perfection to those of us with less ability and skill. If I were still a religious person, which I am not, I guess I would believe, as Catholics do, that God is perfect, but even in my wildest excesses of fandom I never mistook Fischer-Dieskau for God.
I had already worked my way through most of this before that concert on March 22, 1998, but somehow it all crystallized for me that evening. It was a relief, an incredibly liberating feeling, and I also felt free to really like Fischer-Dieskau instead of just admiring him. How do you like an abstraction?
The remaining two concerts were very satisfying indeed. For the second one, the Mahler recital, the hall was noticeably fuller than for the first. This was the first time I had ever heard Fischer-Dieskau sing Mahler in a live recital, although I had cherished several of his Mahler recordings for years. The program was devoted to Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Not for the first time, I admired F-D's program architecture. The first songs, including "Kuckucks Ablösung im Sommer," were relatively light in mood, even whimsical, but then the mood darkened abruptly with a group that ended with "Das irdische Leben." The final song of the first half, however, flowed back to gentle irony with "Des Antonius von Padua Fisch- Predigt." The second half followed a similar pattern, starting with dark, dramatic songs like "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen," “Revelge," "Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz," and "Das Lied des Verfolgten im Turm," and ending with lighter, more humorous songs like "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?", "Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen," and "Selbstgefühl." Perhaps it was the passage of time, perhaps it was that I was sitting in a location that allowed me to see all Fischer-Dieskau's facial expressions clearly, but I am sure I never appreciated how funny he can be until that evening. To quote that song Barbara Streisand used to sing, F-D has more faces than all the Barrymores put together, and he used a good many of them that night. From where I sat, they did not seem in the least overdone. In the second half of the concert, during "Revelge," there was a little mishap. About two-thirds of the way through the song a string in the piano snapped. Fischer-Dieskau and Hartmut Höll carried on to the end of the song without stopping, with the string rattling around in the piano with a grotesque percussive sound that was rather well-suited to the song being sung. Once the song came to an end, there was a pause while the damage was assessed and repairs were effected. Fischer-Dieskau did not seem in the least fazed by the interruption. Hartmut Höll raised the lid of the piano fully, and the two of them, Mutt and Jeff, peered into the depths of the piano together and discussed the matter. Then a technical person was summoned to cut out the offending string with an impressive pair of wire cutters. While this was going on, someone yelled something from the audience. F-D inclined his head, indicating that he had not caught what the person had said, so it was repeated. "Sue Steinway!" Fischer-Dieskau grinned and raised his eyebrows, while the techie with the wire cutters glowered. Once the repair was completed, Fischer-Dieskau continued the program as if nothing had happened.
I went back to Oswego the next morning in a state of great ebullience. A friend of mine, then the chairman of the English Department at SUNY Oswego, accompanied me back to New York on Sunday for the final recital of the series. This concert was devoted to Moerike songs by Hugo Wolf. I have to confess that Wolf is among my less favorite song composers. According to F-D, George Szell once said to him after a concert, "How can you allow yourself to sing this stuff, Dieter? It isn't music!" I'm with George Szell on this one, but if you have to listen to Hugo Wolf, the Mörike Lieder are about as good as it gets. For me, a major problem with Wolf is that when he tries to be funny, he usually isn't nearly as funny as he thinks he is. The first half of the program started with some songs I really do like, most notably "In der Frühe," "Fussreise," and "Denk es, O Seele!". The middlepoint of the first half was a hair-raising "Der Feuerreiter." F-D has recorded this song several times. There is a version from the mid 1960's that I like pretty well, but I generally think he overdoes it a bit. When he sang the song in concert, he did a good deal more "acting" than he usually did. It was effective, but it relied a heavily on extramusical means to make its points. In contrast, the "Storchenbotschaft" that closed the first half achieved its effect solely through F-D's voice and extraordinarily expressive face. The second half of the concert began with a series of love songs and ended with humor--"Zur Warnung" and "Abschied." Frankly, I don't think "Zur Warnung" is very funny when anyone sings it. However, F-D's facial expressions and body language were priceless. He stood next to the piano, his body leaning ever so slightly to one side, his eyes narrowed, his face set in an expression that anticipated the worst, and kept swallowing painfully, the perfect picture of someone about to barf all over the place. I thought the audience would lay an egg. Maybe that's what it takes to get a laugh with this song. It worked for me on this occasion anyway. In "Abschied," which I really think is a funny song, F-D, Schadenfreude incarnate, projected such enjoyment as the critic was kicked down the stairs that it was infectious, but the audience, astonishingly well-behaved, held its applause until the waltz came to its triumphant end, then broke into thunderous applause and bravos.
These concerts sent me home with a lot of things to think about and a renewed optimism that I would be hearing F-D again before he retired. A further concert was announced for November 1989, but I began to question whether I wanted to wait that long to hear him again. Leafing through the pages of Opera News in the spring of 1989, my eye felt on an advertisement for Great Performance Tours. A picture of F-D decorated an announcement of a tour to the Munich Opera Festival in the summer of 1989. Why not, I thought, I have the money, and it's in the summer when I'm not teaching. So I sent away for further information about the tour.
The fact that the fairly expensive opera tour didn't faze me much was a sign that things were going well for me professionally and financially, and I was beginning to feel a certain entitlement to selected aspects of the "good life," like taking off to Munich to hear Fischer-Dieskau, if that is what I wanted to do. By this time, I was chairman of a growing academic department and feeling quite a woman of substance. So, the woman of substance got out her checkbook and went to Europe.
A pleasant and useful byproduct of this entire venture was that I would not only hear Fischer-Dieskau but several live operas. Aside from the occasional trip to Syracuse or the single opera production put on in Oswego every year by Oswego Opera Theatre, I hadn't paid much attention to live opera in a good long while. A particular attraction of this opera tour was that Julia Varady was scheduled to sing Donna Anna in the Don Giovanni that was included in the tour. Nothing like getting both Mr. and Mrs. Fischer-Dieskau for the price of one tour, I thought.
I flew to Munich on the same flight with some of the other tour members, but we didn't get together as a group until our first night in Munich. As is often the case with such tours, most of the participants were a good deal older than I was and pretty well off. Some of them were devoted opera fans, and some of them weren't. There was one strange couple who, I learned subsequently, were frequent subscribers to opera tours, who seemed to have no interest in opera at all. As far as I am aware, they never lasted more than one act before they left. Why they were there at all I really can't say. There were two other young people on the tour. One was an extremely handsome young man in his early twenties who was the partner of an elegant older gentleman. The older man was an opera fan, the younger was being "instructed." The second was a young woman who was a pianist and allround "artsy" type. She proved to be an enthusiast of Fischer-Dieskau, which inclined me to overlook some of her mannerisms.
The first evening we attended a ballet performance, three Stravinsky ballets choreographed by John Cranko. I must report that I fell asleep at least once, not because I didn't enjoy the performance but because of jet lag. That is one of the negative aspects of a lot of opera tours, as far as I'm concerned. In their efforts to pack as much music as possible into a short period of time, they nearly always schedule a performance for the first night, and no matter how valiantly the tour members struggle, a good deal of dozing goes on. When I make my own arrangements, I always make a point of not scheduling something for the first evening.
The second performance was the Fischer-Dieskau Lieder recital, which was held on a Saturday evening. The tour group made an afternoon excursion to Rottach-Egern. As is so often the case, most of the time was expended getting there and back, with not much time at the destination. However, driving through the lakes and Alpine foothills south of Munich is a pleasure in itself. And, at the destination, there was the obligatory stop for coffee and cake, which was also pleasant. In this case, however, I have to admit that I had a hard time concentrating on the sightseeing. All I could think about was the concert that evening. The three concerts the year before had been so good and such a positive experience that I was torn between extreme anticipation and worry that the concert this year could not possibly be as good. When we returned to our hotel, the Vier Jahreszeiten, which is just a couple of blocks away from the Nationaltheater on the Maximilianstrasse, I got changed and was ready far too early. Nevertheless, the time of the concert finally arrived.
This recital, a Schubert-Goethe program, was one of the best Fischer-Dieskau concerts I have ever attended, but it did prove problematic in some ways. When the Nationaltheater is used for this sort of concert, the space normally occupied by the orchestra is filled with another six rows of seats. The entire hall was filled by a well-dressed, excited, knowledgeable audience (with a few exceptions). I had an excellent seat for the concert, which is a matter of some concern when you are short and you are in a theater where the audience seating is not raked. I have had a wonderful view of many a head in the Nationaltheater in Munich. On this evening that was fortunately not the case. However, I had serious neighbor problems. On one side of me sat the strange couple who never stayed for a complete performance of anything (something that had to be related in part, at least, to their serious need to keep their blood alcohol level as high as possible). They were fidgeters and talkers. On the other side were two empty seats that were occupied at the last minute by two young women who spent the first half of the concert nuzzling each other when they weren't talking, humming, or singing along. Had I had a blunt instrument to hand, those girls would not have survived five minutes. As for the couple on my other side, after a good deal of fidgeting and mumbling, the man chose the beginning of "Meeres Stille" as the best time to lean across his wife and ask me what time they served breakfast in the hotel. A man in the row ahead of us turned and shushed him. Disgruntled, they now had the best possible excuse to leave at the intermission, which they mercifully did. Someone must have told off the lovebirds at intermission as well, because they behaved more discreetly and quietly during the second half of the concert.
And yet, with all of that going on, this was one of the most memorable concerts I have ever experienced. It was a very demanding program, all Schubert settings of poems by Goethe. One needed the greatest level of concentration to appreciate what was going on, particularly in the first half. Because of all the mayhem surrounding me, I couldn't concentrate as fully as I would have liked to, and I regret it bitterly because F-D was simply in phenomenal form.
Let me start with some initial impressions. Although a lot of people don't seem to realize it, Fischer-Dieskau is a very big man, six feet three, well-built, not exactly graceful, but with a deliberate, majestic way of moving. When he was younger, his hair was dark brown, which matched his brown eyes. Unlike the fashion today among baritones and basses, F-D was always clean shaven and wore his hair cut short. His grand manner and air of maturity were always somewhat at odds with his pink cheeks, dimples, sparkling eyes, and impish smile. Of course, you rarely saw the smile in a concert, because he was so serious. In photos of F-D at the very beginning of his career, you see a tall, gangling fellow with huge dark eyes who looks about eleven years old. By the mid-1950's he had gained a lot of weight and had taken on a kind of monumental character. As fellow-lister Mike Richter puts it, F-D was a physical giant who seemed to try to look smaller than the piano. To me, the astonishing thing was not that he was a huge man with a huge voice, but rather that such a big man was capable of such delicacy. His baritone voice was unbalanced, with bright highs and dark lows, with a very forward manner of voice production that gave him incredible flexibility and extremely precise diction. His voice was capable of an enormous variety of colors and shadings, but it lacked weight and heft. There seems to be considerable debate about whether it was a big voice or a small voice. F-D himself says that his natural voice was small and oboe-like in character, and that he spent a great deal of time and effort finding ways to expand it and give it resonance. Nevertheless, it was so well used in his prime that he could make it seem enormous, at least in a Lieder recital. And it was so well projected that even the quietest pianissimo could be heard at the back of a very large hall, as I learned when I heard him sing Schubert in Chicago's Auditorium Theater. As he got older, he was even better at managing his vocal resources in such a way as to make his full voice, when he used it, sound thunderous. If you ask me, it was not a big instrument, but it could certainly sound that way when he wanted it to.
As he got older, F-D lost a lot of weight, and his hair turned silver, making his fair skin seem even paler and his dark eyes even more arresting. (Those eyes were worth a million dollars to F-D. I'm convinced that they contributed mightily to his ability to capture and dominate an audience.) He was the incarnation of the handsome, elegant, refined and distinguished "older man." With age, however, he also began to look more remote and reserved, while at the same time he seemed gentler and more good humored. This is a mass of contradictions, I know, but that's the way he seemed.
On that evening in the summer of 1989, F-D looked rather tired and worn out, or maybe stressed is a better word. Nevertheless, he was in very good voice for that stage in his career and got continually better as the evening progressed. The pace of the concert was very quick. F-D pushed along from one song to the next quite rapidly. The audience was in general exemplary (aside from my barbarian neighbors). Unlike in New York, no one clapped between songs and there was a minimum of coughing and fidgeting. These were folks who were quite at home in the "Lieder temple"! As a result, F-D was able to maintain his concentration extremely well, and I think his quick pace was both a cause and a result of that.
More impressions. Physically, F-D was very restrained and low-key, with an absolute minimum of movement and gesture. As usual, his face was incredibly expressive, but he relied on that totally, unlike a few occasions I recall when he did a fair amount of physical "acting" to support a performance. This struck me as a very "classical" Lieder performance, all voice supported by facial _expression with nothing else wanted or needed. And the voice was there-- Sixty-four or not, he had everything going in high gear and his limitations were somehow erased. He seemed to be able to do anything he wanted with no trouble or effort. The loud and dramatic singing was very vehement, but technically it was solid, with little problem with being unfocused or going toneless at climaxes. I was very impressed, especially considering the monumental challenges of the first half of the program in particular. A note: I like "Erlkönig" better when I don't see FD sing it. It was "acted" more than the other songs, and I found that distracting. Still, it was a masterly performance. In general, I would say that the interpretations were subdued, controlled. To repeat a word, it was a very classical performance, the sort of thing that draws the description "Appollonian," even though the emotions were all there. This was a very intellectually conceived program, and F-D performed it with both remarkable restraint and enormous expressiveness.
A little about the program itself. The first half was huge-- Eight blockbuster songs: the 3 "Harfner Gesänge," "Prometheus," "Meeres Stille," "Grenzen der Menschheit," "Der König in Thule," and "Erlkönig." This was the monumental Goethe, huge themes and huge emotions. It was a hard first half, both for the listeners and for the singer. "Meeres Stille" came about halfway through, and it was a little oasis of calm in that enormous, moving progression. And F-D sang it exquisitely. To the very end of his career, his soft singing was simply out of this world. It was tonally beautiful, perfectly enunciated, and how the man could breathe! The phrasing was perfect and perfectly natural. I held my breath, and so did everyone else. "Grenzen der Menschheit" made enormous demands on F-D and he handled them well. I was struck by how dark his bass notes were, and he reached them pretty easily. But the contrast between those tomes and his much lighter, "normal" baritone was very glaring and quite harsh. I was struck, as usual, by the fact that Schubert's setting does not really measure up to the greatness of the poem. Maybe nothing could. Nevertheless, you see glimpses in the song of a "match" between poem and music--it just isn't complete. I don't recall ever hearing F-D sing the "Harfner" songs in concert before. Maybe it's true that they are "old man's songs,"-- At any rate, on this evening he was totally convincing with them, especially "Wer nie sein Brot mit Traenen ass." I loved the way "Erlkönig" rounded out the first half thematically and brought out the confrontation of human and supernatural on a different plane and from a different perspective. I think that as the final song in this arrangement I was more aware of its depiction of the helplessness of the human being in the face of death than I had ever been when hearing it in isolation.
The second half was a fascinating contrast to the first. The first half kind of rolled over one like a freight train, but the second half was lighter and more varied-- some humor, lots of love songs, serenity, communion with nature, a huge contrast to the first half, where the themes were loneliness, pain, freedom, the relationship of the human and the divine, tragic love, natural harmony, the demonic and the struggle with death. This was, as I said, a very deliberate and intellectually constructed program. In a way, you couldn't experience it completely while it was immediately happening, but in recollection you could more fully appreciate the development and contrast of the themes, the connections, the reflections, in a sense, from one half to the other.
Other thoughts: F-D sang both versions of "An den Mond." I like the strophic version better, maybe because it is simpler, but the second version, which he sang as an encore, was also very moving. His final encore was "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh," and it was exquisite. There, the poem and the music are perfectly balanced, and the performance was the third level of perfection. What an incredible way to end the recital. There were long moments before people could recover themselves and clap wildly.
It was a superb evening, one that will remain in my memory for a long time, I hope. And it was wonderful to be a part of and also observe the audience's response to the singer and the achievement. (And not only the singer. Hartmut Höll was the pianist, and he matched F-D's performance with a magnificent one of his own.) In New York, F-D is liked and respected, I think, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that in Munich he is loved and honored. The audience wouldn't (or couldn't) stop applauding, cheering, and stamping. F-D ended up with a half dozen bouquets of flowers and seemed very touched. He sang four encores (somewhat reluctantly, I thought; he must have been exhausted), but even then the audience didn't want to let him go. At the end, everyone in the Nationaltheater was on his feet, clapping and shouting bravo. F-D looked both gratified and embarrassed. It was all very moving and it made me feel good to be there and be a part of it. And I hope that in some way F-D understood how grateful we were for what he had done and what he had given. After all, what other way is there for a person to express it, even if, in a way, you end up being kind of abusive in showing your love and appreciation?
You may wonder why I can describe this concert in such detail. It was always the same for me after a Fischer-Dieskau recital-- I was so excited and keyed up, and had so many thoughts and impressions buzzing around in my head, that I couldn't sleep for hours. Finally, it occurred to me to use that time to write down my impressions, which I did in this case. The rest of the tour was a lot of fun. I heard Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, and a wonderful Lohengrin with Lucia Popp and Peter Seiffert. The one bad note was that Julia Varady cancelled and did not sing Donna Anna.
When I returned home, I did something I have never done before. I wrote F-D a letter expressing my appreciation for the recital. In the letter, I said I was looking forward to hearing him sing the same program in New York City in November. He sent a brief reply that ended "with best wishes until November." But when November came, he cancelled his concert due to illness.
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