The Back Half - Compact Dieskau
Dermot Clinch Monday 1st May 2000

Music - Dermot Clinch on the German baritone who insists on the personal as the essence of art

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau grips a park bench amid a prospect of fallen leaves; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sits warmed by an evening glow; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau retreats, coated, out of the camera's frame. The photographs in the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau birthday boxed set from Deutsche Grammophon - 21 CDs, a minuscule proportion of a life's work - are autumnal, to say the least.

They prompt various responses, such as: a) how appropriate for a man who has been singing about decay and mortality all his life (as is the way of the German art song) and who turns 75 this month; or, b) how inappropriate for a man who was born in May, who has sung Schumann's Dichterliebe - "in the wonderful month of May, when the buds were breaking" - with more meaning than any, and whose art has consisted, above all, in renewal.

In Schubert's "Standchen" from Schwanengesang, Fischer-Dieskau brings life to a line describing the "rustling of slender treetops in the moonlight". It's the kind of thing he has done over and over again, but which seems, on each hearing, incomparable. In the agitation of the musical pulse, in the enunciation of the consonants, in the musical ornament halfway through the phrase, the singer makes us hear the murmuring of the wind above our heads. His attention to words is unique. A simple phrase - moonlight, "Mondes Licht" - becomes tangible, the very words taking on the quality of magical substance. During a 1978 performance of Winterreise, Schubert's greatest song cycle, one critic observed how even the smallest words - he particularly noticed "the lightly touched word und" - were turned into "beautiful and appreciable objects".

The voice was always remarkably beautiful. Perhaps even more remarkable was the gift of giving concrete realisation to ideas. Perhaps it has meant, as critics suggest, an emphasis on text at the expense of music, the breaking up of the melodic line by a precision attack on the words. But such a charge might make better sense if the words in question were not, very often, the poetry of Goethe or Schiller or Heine, and so deserving of attention. When Fischer-Dieskau sings the exclamation "Aoua! Aoua!" in Ravel's Madagascan Songs, even these are invested with profound human emotion.

From the late 1940s onwards, Fischer-Dieskau maintained a level of sophistication and understanding in performance of the German Lied higher than had been previously believed possible. His Schubert songs, with various accompanists, but especially the complete Lieder for male voice with the pianist Gerald Moore in the 1960s, are perhaps the greatest of all recording achievements. But the Deutsche Grammophon set shows the breadth of the singer's interests: his championing not only of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Schumann, but also of Othmar Schoeck (neo-Romantic, unknown, Swiss); Liszt (much ignored songs, intimate but shattering); even - very generously indeed - the music of great interpreters who happened also to be composers, the pianist Wilhelm Kempff and the conductor Bruno Walter.

An early, passionate but priestly recording of Brahms's Four Serious Songs - the composer's last work, in which 18th-century German models are emulated, but a work of unique modernity is created - suggests parallels. Fischer-Dieskau, like Brahms, is a great revivalist. He has written of his concern for the past, for tradition, for not allowing the "tattered remnants of a sunken culture" to remain buried, for the necessity of "coming to terms with the experiments of your own time", which is the essence of creative interpretation.

In his own country, this has been seen politically. According to the author and critic Ivan Nagel, after the war the singer seemed to reject "the ideologies, the sacred beliefs, of which German singers of the past had regarded themselves as guardians": he swept away the woolly fervour and profundity "whose true name was power". By his revisionist intellectual precision, his return to the facts of the musical and poetic texts, his rejection of the accretions of tradition, the singer played his part in the postwar avant-garde, which sought to give art back its candour.

And perhaps he will be seen as that movement's greatest general, because he was its most human. The postwar revolutionaries sought to cleanse music by purging it of the treachery of the personal voice. The German baritone, with the gift of his own, real voice, combined with his intellectual strength and humility, insisted from the first that the personal was the essence of art. He sings Schubert inimitably.

If we have not heard Fischer-Dieskau, we have perhaps not heard Schubert. And if we have not heard Schubert, we have not heard music.

Fischer-Dieskau Edition (Deutsche Grammophon) is available as a set, or 21 separate CDs

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