Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Living Legend
By Steve Holtje
CDNOW Senior Editor, Classical

The importance of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to the world of singing, and to music as a whole, is symbolized by the fact that Deutsche Grammophon's 21-disc Fischer-Dieskau Edition, as wonderful as it is, represents only a small fraction of his many estimable recordings. Though he modestly demures when it is suggested that he has done more to popularize the art of lieder singing outside Germany than any other singer, certainly it's beyond debate that nobody else has committed so much lieder repertoire to record -- much of it known only to cognoscenti before he took up its cause. He was equally distinguished in opera, most notably in Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, and Berg. But, as in all aspects of his career, his opera interests ranged far beyond his presumed specialties. Having retired from singing in 1992, he has continued to conduct, and also paints.

The Fischer-Dieskau Edition covers, of course, the expected lieder territory, with four discs of Schubert (including a previously unreleased 1968 recording of Die schöne Müllerin with Jörg Demus), two of Schumann, and one each devoted to Brahms, Beethoven, Mahler, Liszt, Wolf, and Richard Strauss. There are also two discs of opera arias, another two of sacred music, and one of folk-song settings. But there are also surprises. The disc Songs by Great Artist-Composers, for instance, includes two striking songs by Enrico Mainardi, written for Fischer-Dieskau in the '60s, four songs of Wilhelm Kempff on which the composer is also the pianist, and compositions by Adolf Busch and Bruno Walter, among others. A disc is devoted to songs by Debussy, Ravel, and Ives. The lieder of Othmar Schoeck, who without Fischer-Dieskau's persuasive advocacy would be unjustly forgotten, fill a 78-minute CD, while Reger and Pfitzner split another disc. This box is a true cornucopia of expressive, finely pointed singing.

Fischer-Dieskau spoke with CDNOW by phone from his home in Berlin about the box set and more general matters.

CDNOW: How involved were you in choosing the material for Deutsche Grammophon's Fischer-Dieskau Edition?

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: No, I was not. I had sent them once a list of the published LPs, and so they had a list from me, but they have chosen different choices and left out some things, like my Meyerbeer songs, which I would have liked to have [had] in the collection. And others, too. There are still things not published on CD.

The Edition contains two discs of sacred music. Does singing Bach require a different psychological approach than lieder or opera?

Why should it? No, I wouldn't say so. For me, it's first music, and also for the composer, the first thing is the music, and then of course you have religious feelings, something independent of that, in a way. It's the same thing as, you sing Don Giovanni, but you don't have to be Don Giovanni to sing it onstage.

Your first professional performance was Brahms' German Requiem, and you recorded it with Kempe, Karajan, Klemperer, and Barenboim.

Yes, professional performance; it depends on what you call that. I had sung Der Winterreise in '42 for the first time in front of a little audience, about 300 people in a suburb of Berlin. Even earlier than that. Also I conducted the Brahms, with my wife and Thomas Hampson, not long ago in Hamburg with the Singakademie and the State Orchestra.

Does it have special significance for you?

Oh yes, of course. That is a typical product of a man who was not a dogmatic Christian. I think he never went to church, in spite of the fact that he ended his life by composing an incredible organ chorale. And the texts he chose are far away from a usual requiem. It was an ingenious way of choosing texts and the sequence there. It's also fascinating how he combines his own creativity with the experiences he had with the music of Mendelssohn -- above all, this music owes to Mendelssohn very much -- and of course Bach. These two are important in the German Requiem.

Did establishing yourself as a conductor make it easier for you to retire from singing?

No, I don't think so. But working, of course, is necessary for me. To retire from singing is a natural process, but it is always hard for a singer to stop, even if he has sung almost 50 years, but still. My conducting is not the same; it's quite a different musical occupation, I would say [laughs].

"I have no ambition whatsoever to be an intellectual."

Your most recent CD as a conductor is a Richard Strauss disc with your wife, Julia Varady. What is it like to find yourself with the tables turned, so to speak, accompanying a singer?

I think if you can't accompany, then you are not a musician. Furtwängler always said that. I am the conductor, and I want the people to sing as I would like to have them, but if you are not able to accompany then you have to stop making music at all.

On the Strauss disc, you conduct, you sing, and you paint. It is a pleasant surprise that you sing again, in the brief role of the Haushofmeister. Did the philosophical point of Capriccio, which of course lies at the heart of singing, make it special to you and influence your decision to sing on it?

No. The decision to sing on it was simply to make things easier, because we didn't have to engage another baritone for that. And I just did it during conducting; it was not synchronized afterwards; I sang it during the direction. This piece, of course, is the unanswered question, will always be: whether the music, or text, or words are of the first importance. Very difficult. Sometimes it is on the side of the word -- think of Hugo Wolf, who is often declamating and making music with the declamation -- or think of Schubert, where you have first melody and then everything else.

In a way the fact that Strauss never answers the question --

Nobody could, I think. It's not possible to have a decision like that.

It's as though he's saying there isn't a dichotomy, and they're combined to complete something different that can't be separated.

Yes, separate they are not. But of course, the results are so different from each other whether the composer is theatrical first of all and then makes music with that, or whether he is a musician first and then tries to give justice to the word.

Why do you think some critics insist on calling your singing intellectual, as though intellect is all there is to it?

[Sighs] There's so much prejudice and so much misunderstanding in that, that I couldn't speak about it. Because it's not true. For me, music is always the first. And intellectual, what does that mean? I'm no intellectual at all, you see it in my English [laughs]. Also, I have no ambition whatsoever to be an intellectual. I'm just maybe not quite stupid, but that's a precondition. Or else you could stand as a tenor at a ramp and shout your notes, but I think that's not singing; that's not a fulfilling action.

It does seem as if there can be something of a paradox in lieder and some operas. Think of Wozzeck, where there's the composer -- who was obviously a genius -- and then a conductor and the singer all have to be so very aware of the nuances, while they're singing about a character who's unaware. It is a paradox, isn't it?

It's not a paradox; it's just the ability of the creative person to insinuate somehow such a person and to put himself into it, as a good actor does. I mean, no actor of the Wozzeck of Büchner is of the character of Wozzeck. Onstage he must be, but otherwise he is not. He may be very intelligent or [not], but not a murderer anyway.

Aside from staging, obviously, what do you think are the differences between lieder and singing opera?

I wouldn't make much difference, because there are in lied so many dramatic elements, very often further than opera, even in Schubert, but also if you start with Zelter or Reichardt. And Schumann, take the ballads after Heine or Chamisso. There are so many highly dramatic moments where you have to have all abilities of the operatic voice in yourself. And on the other side, in the opera, there is so much lyrical stuff. Think of "O du, mein holder Abendstern" in Tannhäuser. It is very lyrical and soft, you have to be very flexible and able to reflect all movements, all inner feelings, like this.

What characteristics especially distinguish some of the pianists you've worked with?

I think as exponents of different styles I would name first Gerald Moore, who is the softest and most legato-playing pianist I have ever met. And then on the other hand you have Sviatoslav Richter, who was able to be a wild lion in tone. There has just come out a record of a concert we gave together in Munich with only Hugo Wolf Goethe songs. There you see his special qualities, a wonderful, archaic way, I would call it, to stick to one sound plane, some prescripted piano, pianissimo, triple piano, or, on the other hand, fortes up to four fortes; he holds them through as nobody else has. Alfred Brendel is very flexible on the rhythm side very often. And there are so many other things one could say; difficult to do it in short.

"We don't have to be guardians of the museum of the past only; we want to give some of our own time, too."

Sony just reissued the studio disc you made with Leonard Bernstein on piano. What was it like working with him as a pianist?

He was very choosy at the piano; we had six grand pianos in the studio around in a circle, because he never was happy; each song, new piano. He was never happy with the tone or with the intonation, with the machinery, so. But he was like a volcano, something like an explosion sometimes, and was fitting wonderfully into the Mahler expression. That exactly is called for there.

Deutsche Grammophon is reissuing Reimann's Lear, which is a work you suggested to him. It must be very satisfying to see that reappear.

Yes, that was a piece of work for me, because I worked very hard that it came out. Already when the LP was coming out, there were financial problems and the opera house was against it; it was very difficult to get it on record. But then, we managed it somehow. Everybody sacrificed a little bit of his money, so it came out. But it was also difficult, because all the record firms are in difficult situations nowadays, so they didn't want to make a big fuss about a piece which is purely modern, so it was hard to bring them to that.

Many classical music listeners might be surprised at how much 20th-century music you have sung.

Quite a lot, yes. I think an artist is somehow indebted to this, because we don't have to be guardians of the museum of the past only, we want to give some of our own time too. It's a wonderful way of adventure and surprise. You never know whether a piece is arriving well for the audience or not, whether it's a flop or a success. And I am a rather curious person, and I enjoy this very much, all the time. Of course you have to find composers who really promise to give something, to have something to say. Aribert Reimann is one of the few composers who are able to write for a certain voice in a certain style. He had my voice in his head during writing. So somehow these are very, very well done for me.

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