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.