Gramophone September 2000:

Fischer-Dieskau: Admiration or Love? - The paradox that is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

John Steane

John Steane

Dr Yiannis Gabriel's letter in the July issue, responding to a query I raised in a Fischer-Dieskau review (June, page 108) gives me a welcome opportunity to enlarge the point. The question was a musing, speculative kind of thing: 'Is it possible to love Fischer-Dieskau's records and not particularly want to play them?' I raised it as a paradox harbouring the lurking suspicion of a falsehood (a briskly logical mind might say, `Well, come along now. Make your mind up. You can't "love" something and "not particularly want" to be with it. You could drop that sticky word "love" for a start and substitute "admire"'). But no: the experiences are (a) I settle down to a Fischer-Dieskau recital on record and not merely admire but (with exceptions, as there nearly always are) love it, and (b) given a free, off-duty hour or evening with the gramophone and a wide choice of singers before me, I don't choose Fischer-Dieskau. So there is a paradox, but no falsehood; and, so far as I am concerned, the explanation has still to be formulated.

As for what Dr Gabriel calls the cliches of criticism it might, of course, be argued that the very fact that certain terms ('over-intellectual', 'over-emphatic' and so forth) have become cliches and are 'used in different reviews', suggests there must be something to them. If they are substantiated by precise reference and argument then, of course, they have just as much validity as any other critical observations. But too often (I agree with Dr Gabriel), they are the hand-me-down, penny-in-the-slot, knee-jerk reactions of prejudice. 'Mannered' and 'studied' come from the same secondhand store: both carry a deadly subtext, a charge of affectation, that can equally be implied by voicing a preference for a performance that is called 'sincere' or ,spontaneous'. Then there is the classical cliché about art that conceals art; it can obviously be true of a virtuoso who makes technical difficulties sound easy, but often it is used obliquely against artists such as Fischer- Dieskau to praise simplicity and plainness at the expense of subtlety and perception.

But some of Dr Gabriel's own terms will, at the very least, cause the raising of an eyebrow, even among some who are in broad agreement. `A peerless legato' attributed to Fischer-Dieskau is, I take it, meant as a red flag among bulls. I know several (bulls) who will find the claim laughable. But let us try. Probably no song more insistently demands and tests a singer's legato than Schubert's Litanei ('Ruh'n in Frieden alle Seelen'). The first version I found and played was so near perfection that it seemed incumbent on me to look for another, but that was even better. Both are with Gerald Moore, and the DG recording, which I played first, is from 1969. The phrases are beautifully bound, supported by the breath. No emphatic or unintegrated consonants break the flow (soft 't's in 'vollbracht' and 'vollendet', for example); no aspirates obtrude in the rising words 'banges' and 'süssen'. In the EMI (1965) a slightly wider range of volume and dynamics is used, for instance the second verse, typically making one look for the reason: the second line is about lying on a bed of thorns and the third concerns resurrection in the pure light of Heaven. This is never inexpressive legato, though legato as true as any it surely is.

But Schubert was not the name the bulls expected to see on the red flag. Verdi: 'The man tries to sing Verdi' they will say, implying effrontery and incompetence. Again, let's try. An LP box comes to hand with a Verdi recital from 1959. 'Il balen', the Count's aria from Il trovatore and the first item here, is generally reckoned a severe test of legato and of other features (the wide range and high tessitura, for instance) that should qualify `the Verdi baritone'. First observation is that the phrases are well sustained (Italians often break them); then, that the line is not pulled out of shape by the high notes. The gruppetti are graceful and exact, the delicate six-note scale on the word 'suo' is dolce as marked and the high G dolcissimo.


Near the end, just before the cadenza (unfortunately broken into words, in the Italian manner), some emphatically articulated notes might be thought hectoring, but look at the score, where four consecutive sforzandi are marked. And if the critics are wondering by what standards the opening phrase of the aria could be described as legato, then another glance at the score would help the crotchet notes are marked with a dot above or below, signifying, if not quite semi-staccato, then at least a degree of detachment or emphasis. That first phrase contrasts in this respect with the second, similarly the third with the fourth: the phrases answer each other through slight variations in the singer's legato. Had we, I wonder, noticed that before? I hadn't: but that is typical of Fischer-Dieskau. You learn things through him, and the music means more.

But this, of course, is a different matter - and words such as `learn' and 'mean' are red flags too ('There you are!' they cry. 'Cerebral!' You're making something intellectual out of it'). At least one doesn't have to be particularly brainy to find an answer to that.

The word `particularly', however, serves to remind us of our starting-point. How can it be (the question remains) that one may love the records, yet not particularly want to play them? For me, the answer lies in something not yet mentioned, either in this article or in Dr Gabriel's letter. It's a matter of timbre. I `hear' the voice in my head and it doesn't create an appetite. This has to do with vibrancy. The typical Italian baritone has (or had) a higher degree of vibrancy about the timbre than a typical German. Think of Gobbi's middle register or Gino Bechi's. In recent times Giorgio Zancanaro has had something of it; in earlier times Pasquale Amato and Benvenuto Franci had it as a marked characteristic. Maybe it's personal, but the voices that I particularly - that is urgently - want to hear (Lauri-Volpi and Corelli among tenors, Pinza pre-eminent among basses) have it; and it creates an appetite, a thirst even. The other love is caritas rather than eros: I don't quite thirst for FischerDieskau! John Steane

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