Lion in winter
When is a DVD recording of a performance without audience more desirable than a CD? Perhaps when the greatest performer of Schubert’s Winterreise cycle is the singer in this DVD. Watching Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau perform with Alfred Brendel at the piano is to experience the intensity and variety of the cycle in a more personal setting, one that Schubert himself would have liked. The feeling of a Schubertiad, a gathering of small circles of friends to perform and listen to each other, is captured here.
Winterreise is the saddest of Schubert’s song cycles, written in the last years of his life. A jilted lover fixed on imminent death sets out on a long journey in the bleak winter. The set of 24 songs is not a narrative, but rather a psychological soliloquy in which a series of winter scenes are joined to symbols. The traveler’s inner torment is relieved occasionally by remembrance of happier things past, but there is no escaping a harsh conclusion.
Despite its gloom, Winterreise is a magnet for modern audiences, and Fischer-Dieskau’s many recordings and watching him shows us why. He deploys his voice emotionally and intellectually, casting a spell to achieve immense expressive power. The first song, “Good Night,” bids farewell in tenderness, irony and dignity mixed. Schubert establishes a “going motion,” which does not cease, but Fischer-Dieskau always keeps his footing. While he never lightens the sadness, the dark melancholy that lingers over the songs does not descend to soothing vocalizations. Fischer-Dieskau lets the darkness come forward in full. Moments of hope and happiness are colored even more expressively in contrast to the overall mood.
The cycle has no formal key scheme, nor does it have an elaboration of themes. It feels improvisational, and so does this close up and personal performance. Fischer- Dieskau is not a sentimental singer, but rather, with contrasting tones, he conducts an intimate conversation with the listener. He once wrote that songs lead the listener from thinking with language to thinking without language.
In the 23rd song of the cycle— “The Mock Suns”—the singer notes that the text refers to three suns, the girl’s two eyes and the real sun, and that Schubert composed in triplets, which are not found in the verses of the poem. In “The Weathervane,” the third stanza is repeated to develop an effective climax. Masterly harmonic strokes are achieved by both vivid coloring and apt timing.
Brendel picks up the original vocal line in the piano bass of “On the River.” The voice counterpoints words against this, contrasting the stream and the heart. This kind of juxtaposition clearly shows how interdependent the piano and voice are in the cycle. In “The Crow,” the singer’s line follows the left hand of the piano as the crow sticks to the traveler’s path. When the piano imitates wind instruments the audience can imagine stier or staring without explanation. Fischer-Dieskau writes: “All attempts to imitate music in speech… onomatopoeic poems, meaningless prose, show that speech can not afford to be a serious competitor.”
Here is a singer who we hear feeling the words, enunciating with purity from his desire to be understood, saying in the end that everything must be turned back to music, and that he does with Brendel. He teaches that only when a singer goes his own way and is faithful to his own personality can succeed. Fischer-Dieskau succeeds in conveying tenderness in “The Linden Tree.” He can move on a dime to the irony of his idyllic dream and then slip into a shiver as he awakes—a remarkable emotional repertoire!
The subtle pleasures of Schubert abound. “Illusion” has three bar sections. Irregularity offers unrest and oddity, which reflects the illusion of the song. Brendel’s accompaniment mocks the words at the end of each line. The use of the caesura, stopping points, along the way in the voice and piano, illustrate how much more variable music is than words. In “The Post,” we have a bar, three bars and half a bar, all suggesting how agitated the cast-off lover is. Brendel and Fischer-Dieskau bring forward all these subtle pleasures as partners.
The hurdy-gurdy’s drone and tinkling in two bar measures starts the last song. The lamentation of 24 songs dies away in the end as the madman and the beggar disappear in the landscape.
It is often said that Fischer-Dieskau is the greatest interpreter of Schubert songs and that the only one he competed with was himself. He does not sing about a state of emotion but he directly faces, unprepared, the blasts and surprises of different moments of life. No moment is like another.
Earlier recordings of Fischer-Dieskau with his mentor Gerald Moore surpass this take with Alfred Brendel simply because Moore and Fischer-Dieskau were born on the same page. Moore was always amazed at how few takes Fischer-Dieskau required in his recording sessions, and also noted that he did not re-record phrases, but rather the entire song, which contributed to the performance unity evident in the 1979 recording on the DVD. The improvisatory feeling that Schubert himself brought to composition is clearer in the performance with Moore.
Fischer-Dieskau and his collaborators were forging new territory. Instead of looking back to singing interpreters of the past, they were musicians. The pianist was no longer simply an “accompanist” but a full and equal partner in bringing the music forward.
Piano and singer are on different planes, but Schubert’s art lies in the understanding between friends who are equals. Figures and harmonies are composed for both artists and their expression seems unrehearsed.
The bonus in this package is a 56-minute rehearsal recorded prior to the performance. Here we see Fischer-Dieskau exaggerating the phrasing and dynamics before he pulls back into reasonableness for the actual performance. He uses his hands in the way that artists do when they are in a recording session without cameras. Actors and singers tell us that hand gestures help with breathing and expression, but they are verboten before the public. The casual playfulness between Fischer-Dieskau and Brendel in the rehearsal portion of the DVD is, I think, what Schubert himself might have expected, mirroring the relaxed atmosphere that characterized the composer’s musical evenings with friends.
In any case, this song cycle is so powerful that it has been adopted in pop culture and will be on stage at the American Repertory Theater in Boston next year. Schubert is no longer relegated to an elitist corner. His music, written to be performed by amateurs in a living room, has been performed by Sting and the Kronos Quartet. Director Katie Mitchell joined Winterreise with Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing.
Although Fischer-Dieskau may have only seemed to care about classical music, it doesn’t surprise that, after a lieder recital in Washington, DC, Fischer-Dieskau left quickly to catch a plane for New York so he could hear Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.
Listening to Fischer-Dieskau in this first rate DVD helps us understand why Schubert’s music lives on, inside and outside the concert hall.