Saturday, 19 May 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau Remembered

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died on 18th May 2012, a little over a week before his 87th birthday. He was without doubt one of the finest lieder and opera singers of his, or indeed any, generation. I will leave the writing of obituaries to others, but I thought I would put together some of my favourite recordings. The result can found in this Spotify playlist:

It would be difficult to begin anywhere but with Schubert lieder, works with which Fischer-Dieskau is probably most closely associated and which he recorded prolifically. Der Taucher (D77) is probably not the most obvious starting point. However, it is where my interest in his performances of the works first really began. In a bid to get to know them, I had picked up his mammouth 21 disc box set with outstanding accompanist Gerald Moore. The first song that really grabbed me was Der Taucher, which comes towards the end of disc one. Based on a Schiller poem, it vividly tells the story of the eponymous diver, plunging again, and again, into the depths to retrieve the king's chalice, until....

Fischer-Dieskau was, for me, one of the finest Kurwenals on record, something that he demonstrated on two of the finest recordings of Tristan und Isolde, made at either end of his career. From the first, the legendary recording with Wilhelm Furtwangler, I've chosen the start of act three, one of my favourite moments in the opera, as they await the arrival of a ship. Nearly thirty years later, with Carlos Kleiber in the pit, Fischer-Dieskau's performance is no less compelling. I considered selecting a different exert from that recording, but I liked the symmetry and so the same section is to be found as the penultimate track on the playlist.

Next, to lighten the mood, I have turned to another end of the operatic spectrum, and Mozart's sublime comedy Le Nozze di Figaro. Fischer-Dieskau features as the count in Karl Bohm's Deutsche Oper recording and is on fine form here in the comic conclusion of act two as, Figaro, Suzanna and the countess having temporarily got the better of him, he pleads for forgiveness. Although a broken flowerpot is just around the corner...

I had initially thought I might select a different Schubert lied every other track, but in the end I've opted for fewer than that. I first met Der Erlkonig (D328) not as a lied, but rather in Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst's fiendish arrangement for solo violin after Rachel Barton Pine performed it in a dazzling encore at the end of her last visit to Edinburgh (a regrettably long time ago now). I was instantly won over to it and have found the ghoulish original no less compelling.

You could probably argue that I should have chosen Otto Klemperer's recording of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, and I would probably have to concede that it is overall a finer and more satisfying performance than the one I have ultimately selected. However, I have gone instead to Edinburgh in 1978, where Fischer-Dieskau performed the work together Ilena Cotrubas, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Carlo Maria Giulini. Fischer-Dieskau had a long association with the Edinburgh festival, which also occupies a special place in my affections, so I wanted to represent it.

We've had lieder, opera, requiem, next oratorio. Fischer-Dieskau sang Christ in Bach's St Matthew Passion several times, but I have opted for Furtwangler's regrettably cut performance, and in particular the scene where Jesus announces that one of his disciples will betray him. Furtwangler's conducting will not be to all tastes, certainly not for those inclined towards historically informed performance. However, he also recorded it with Karl Richter.

Schubert again, and another favourite lied, this time one that I first heard in recital at Aldeburgh (though I cannot now recall either the singer or the accompanist). In a performance of Schwanengesang, it was Der Doppleganger that grabbed me most. Fischer-Dieskau and Moore give it a searingly dramatic performance.

Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem with three singers in mind, including Fischer-Dieskau. In fact, it is here that I would ideally chose to turn to Edinburgh, where, in 1968, the original trio performed it with the Philharmonia, with Giulini on the podium and Britten conducting the chamber ensemble. My parents tell me it was an extraordinary performance (as indeed do other people I've met who were lucky enough to be there). Giulini's recording, made a year later at the Albert Hall, bears this out. Alas, by then only Pears remained of the original soloists. However, Fischer-Dieskau was caught for posterity on the composer's own outstanding recording with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Melos Ensemble. The exert I've chosen is Be slowly lifted up, for the singing of course, but also the wonderful brass work behind it.

It might be said with some justification that, Figaro aside, this is a rather depressing selection, so in the interest of lightening the mood somewhat, let us return to Deutche Oper for Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Fischer-Dieskau sang Sachs on Eugen Jochum's fine recording and is on good form at one of my favourite moments, as he judges Beckmesser's performance by hammering his shoe. I've just included one track from the disc, but here, as elsewhere, you may want to click through and listen all the way to the act's conclusion.

I tend to prefer Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with a mezzo or a contralto (and on disc ideally with Kathleen Ferrier), but if anyone comes close to convincing me of the merits of a baritone it is Fischer-Dieskau, here with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

I've closed the playlist with one final Schubert lied. It seemed fitting to turn to the start of Winterreise and Gute Nacht. Of course, at this point there are many choices, as he recorded it many times. Moore is already well represented on this playlist and so I have looked elsewhere and opted for his performance with that incomparable Schubertian Alfred Brendel.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau leaves a vast and rich legacy on record, and this is no more than a small and probably not very representative sample, which perhaps doesn't range as widely as it might, but it does represent how I for one will remember him best.

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