Cher Public

When he has sung his songs

schubert_amazonOn the occasion of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s 85th Birthday, TDK has re-released performances of Schubert’s “Die schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise” as a two-DVD boxed set.

“Winterreise” was recorded without an audience at Siemensvilla, Berlin in January 1979, and is the earlier and more robust of the two performances. “Die schöne Müllerin” was taped over a decade later before a live audience at the Schubertiade Feldkirch, in June of 1991 – only two years before the great baritone retired.

I think it is always important when reviewing a DVD or CD that a critic admit whether or not she had the opportunity to hear the artist live. How an unamplified human voice sounds in an auditorium and the personality and presence the artist projects profoundly influence the effect they have on an audience. So right up front I want to say that I never heard or saw Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau live. All I know about him comes from his astonishingly varied recorded legacy.

And as a young listener I was not a fan of either his voice or his artistry. I found the former on the “blustery” side (particularly in big operatic performances) and the latter on the “fussy” side. Because of that early prejudice, and despite a deep love of the great song literature, I never bothered to watch his videos. So my overwhelmingly positive response to this remarkable set came as a complete surprise.

In the liner notes for “Winterreise,” Gottfried Kraus hits the nail squarely on the head:

As though of its own accord, everything seemed to be just right. The voice – bright and lyrical in its basic color, but equally capable of darker shades and dramatic accents – was ideally suited to Schubert’s demands. Vocal line and articulation of the text complemented each other to perfection, and it was possible to understand each word, each syllable, each expressive color, yet the music always came first, with the singer treating Schubert’s musically inventive and inspired setting of Müller’s words as absolute music. But there was also the impression of spontaneity and youthful enthusiasm, so that never for a moment was there the suspicion of intellectual distance or precocious calculation.

Watching these DVDs for the first time, the biggest revelation for me was the “spontaneity and youthful enthusiasm” of the performances. What comes across as fussy and calculated on recordings appears completely natural and instinctive on video. The sheer “artlessness” of the art is almost breathtaking. You may never see a more perfect blending of voice, technique, intellect, musicality, storytelling and repertoire.

In both of these performances the great baritone was working with equally great pianists. In “Die Winterreise,” Alfred Brendel’s dark, weighty tone was the perfect compliment for the baritone’s voice, which at that time still retained much of its youthful color and strength. Working together they bring an almost “Beethoven-ian” seriousness to the tragic story, and it makes for a dramatic and compelling performance.

By the time “Die schöne Müllerin” was recorded the voice had lost some of that color and strength, but still possessed to an amazing degree its beauty, spin and grace. András Schiff’s light, transparent tone and loving attention to detail enabled the singer to create a remarkably youthful portrait of love found and then lost.

To sum it up, if you already own these remarkable documents you owe it to yourself to give them another viewing. If you have yet to purchase them, this boxed set is a must-have for any serious lover of great song literature.

  • Straussmonster

    [Got your correction -- thanks! -- LC]

  • soubrettino

    I want! DFD is one hot daddy and baritones always seem to be the last ones to go -- vocally or artistically.

  • Jack Jikes

    Your review was illuminating.

  • Harry

    I am amazed that people are willing to do hand springs over such performances. That baritones vocally ‘seem to be the last to go’? It stands to reason ‘why! .But, they ‘still go to tatters’, too’ alright, in any case! That they bring a ‘Beethovenish quality’ to the performance? Brendel…(though laughably once considered ‘chic’ by the British!)was a boring, bland, fixated interpreter & accompanist? No thanks!

    I prefer Schubert being performed as Schubert..’the romantic that lost his innocence and could not find it again’ Fischer-Dieskau was like so many others have: recording well ‘after vocal sunset’ with their voices. Just go back to Fischer-Dieskau’s earlier ‘bench-mark’ recording efforts in Schubert with Gerard Moore accompanying both on EMI or DG……why would you ever want to collect and listen to these presently mentioned performances?
    The ‘best ‘is the enemy of the ‘reasonably good,even given someone’s age’ or the mere ‘so-so’.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    Very interesting take on old Fisch. Like you, I’ve found him a total turn-off on record, mainly because something about the voice and the way it is produced makes me uncomfortable, but I’ll see if I can watch some performances experience a similar turn around.

  • Harry

    The words :badgering, over-empathic and stern -- come to my mind, when listening especially, to later recordings of Fischer -Dieskau. It appears almost a compensation gesture to make up for what he no longer vocally, was formerly capable of.Comparing them with earlier recordings he made of the same identical material, ‘wear’ is evident. Still an amazing versatile remarkable career and the best examples of his work are so freely available,(CD- collection sets galore!) makes one ask ‘why would one bother’, just because this release ‘is on DVD’. Representing standards akin to drawling over some DVD of Sutherland in her final ‘tragic’ performances as ‘great examples of her Art’.

  • soubrettino

    Wow. A lot of people don’t like DFD. To each his own. And yes, it’s not a sine qua non that baritones = longevity, but it all reflects on the basic technique, discipline and sheer dumb luck. Peace!

    • Pelleas

      Harry is not a lot of people.

  • iltenoredigrazia

    Come on, baritone is the most common male vocal range. One could say the most natural. Baritones probably have the least extension up and down of their natural range. There many roles that an ageing baritone can manage as he loses the top and bottom of his range. Natural basses are not far behind. (Those who have the low notes from the beginning.)

    The high tenor range is another matter. Even tenors naturally endowed with high notes (e.g., Florez, Kraus, Gedda) lose with age the muscle strength needed for them.

    Similar for females. The soprano high notes, whether nature-given or fabricated, need a diaphragm to support them. Hard to do as you age. Tenors can manage without the very top notes, but a soprano without a B and a C has few choices.

    It was either Nilsson or Rysanek who said late in their careers that they still could produce the high notes, the problem was in having the stamina to sustain prolonged singing.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Re your last paragraph, the most common and serious problem with aged singers, including late career Nilsson and Rysanek, seems in my experience to be intonation in the middle register. They’re not the only ones who could still summon up a decent high note when called for, but who seemed incapable of singing the simplest phrase in the middle voice in tune.

      I saw Caballe in recital early this century and she performed Desdemona’s scene from Verdi’s Otello. The big top a-sharp (ah Emlia addio etc) was spot on, huge and glorious, but very little of the rest of the scene, which centres around the middle voice at fairly restrained dynamic levels, was in tune. The same seems to apply to my recent experiences of Kiri. Callas on her world tour seemed to be suffering most when trying to use her middle voice too -- the chest was snarly, the top insecure and rather white, but the middle was scarcely there at all. And in fact, to contradict you a little, it also applied to Kraus when I saw him in recital in the late 1990s. Most of it was in a very sorry state, but the one part of the voice that worked well was the extreme top. He dispatched the 9 high cs in ‘Ah mes amis’ very respectably, but the rest of his voice was a wreck.

      It’s a phenomenon I don’t really understand, but it seems quite common.

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    Hammond-Stroud remains the better singer and artist.

  • wladek

    When a writer comments on a
    performer singing Schubert and
    bringing to the cycle a”Beethoven-ian”
    seriousness( whatever the hell that means)to the tragic story, you wonder
    is it an idiot or an air head reviewing
    the work . One would assume from reading this stupid review that if
    the work were played as” Schubert-ian” it would come off sounding like
    Le Vie Parisiennen but if one brings to
    it” Beethoven-ian” oomph”it will be
    dramatic and compelling . By the
    same token if poor Chopin only
    wrote his mazurkas in a more
    Beethoven-ian manner how much
    more serious they would have been .
    Where do they find these stupid people ?

    • Nerva Nelli

      “Where do they find these stupid people ?”

      Is legacy of Callas’ awful screaming.
      Worthless praise for worthless so-called diva, ridiculous.
      Only Wladek see truth.

    • Okay, that’s a time out.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Slightly off topic (well, entirely off topic as regards slamming people), I listened to Corelli’s 1974 Met Romeo on XM yesterday and thought he sounded awful. He was pushing his voice all the way compared to how it just flowed out (some would say bellowed) in previous years. But his top notes did seem to be there, and strongly, too.

    The audience loved it. I get the feeling that most of us who are not music professionals tend to ignore the middle voice issues and simply concentrate on whether the singer can reach those top (or bottom) notes.

  • Clita del Toro

    Don Carlo--that’s the way it goes with great, beloved singers: their voices start to go, but they are still loved to death until: 1. no one can bare to listen to them; or 2. they quit while they are ahead (or die).
    Late Price, Tebaldi, Milanov all went through that same process even tough their voices were, shall we say, not at their best and bad habits crept into their singing.

  • Clita del Toro

    I have a love/hate relationship to DFD’s singing. At times I find his singing absolutely marvelous. I saw him sing a concert version of Doktor Faustus (is that the title?) at Carnegie Hall and was overwhelmed.
    But his habit (I call it “moaning”) of initiating certain notes (too many!) drives me crazy. Is it sliding or is it the lack of vibrato? Or, both????

  • Olivero is my Drug of Choice

    DFD is one of the “great” voices that I just never got. I remember attending a recital in the late 70’s that consisted entirely of Brahm’s Lieder. The audience was enraptured. I was making shopping lists in my head waiting for the damn thing to be over.

  • Clita del Toro

    Olivero--I don’t think that DFD had a great voice, but he knew how to use what he had and had great control over the instrument.

  • zinka

    Are you sure this is not a Perry Como album?????