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Der 'Jahrhundertsänger’

John Warrack pays tribute to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

Just off the Potsdamerstrasse, in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin, runs the Fischer-Dieskau-Weg, named in honour of the highly regarded Dr Albert Fischer. He was a man of scholarly distinction, a philologist and amateur musician with a fine library of German classical literature who added the Dieskau to preserve his mother’s maiden name; and his literary interests went into the cultural formation, the Bildung, of his third son, Albert Dietrich. Added to prodigious natural vocal gifts, wide-ranging intelligence and boundless capacity for hard work, they helped to shape the young man’s mind and his art; only very rarely could they seem to inhibit him.

 

It was the sheer beauty of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s voice that made the immediate appeal. So it was, unforgettably, for the audience at his English debut in the Royal Albert Hall on 7 June 1951. When the opening chorus of Delius’s Mass of Life had finished, the young man rose to his feet at Sir Thomas Beecham’s side and delivered himself of the baritone solo, ‘Erhebt eure Herzen, meine Brüder…’. That golden flow of sound was indeed heart-lifting, and William Mann, with whom I went to the performance, wrote in the Times next day of ‘a high baritone of ringing nobility and a remarkable range of colour, through all its registers’. Beecham was said to have been so enthusiastic that he tried to press Fischer-Dieskau on Covent Garden for Sachs in his Meistersinger in the same year; but that would surely have been too soon—by a quarter of a century, in Fischer-Dieskau’s own estimation.

 

He was not slow to take on other Wagner roles. He claimed that the first music to make an impression on him was the Lohengrin wedding march (but he was only six at the time). Though his operatic debut was in Verdi with a Posa in Berlin in 1948, the call to Bayreuth came in 1954, when he did indeed sing in Meistersinger, but as Kothner, and also in Parsifal, Lohengrin and in a Tannhäuser troubled by cancellations and illness. Already concerns were being uttered about the prodigal expenditure of his vocal resources. From Bayreuth, Andrew Porter wrote in these pages that though Fischer-Dieskau was the most rewarding thing about the performances, ‘he shouted a good deal, and was consistently louder than the other minstrels. Yet the intensity of his declamation and phrasing and the wonderful quality of his voice made his Wolfram unforgettable.’ A few years later, Christopher Raeburn, reviewing a Salome in Vienna also in these pages, feared that a Jokanaan so powerfully shouted must bode ill for the voice’s owner.

 

Yet the robustness of his voice, and his mastery of it, saw him through a long career, and in the Italian repertory no less than the German. There were memorable performances of Verdi’s Macbeth and Renato, and in Mozart of the Count and Don Giovanni; much could be added. At times in his career, there could be too great a reliance on the quality of the voice, for all his intelligence and verbal sensitivity. In Lieder, though there were incomparable evenings, especially in partnership with Gerald Moore in Schubert, mannerisms did begin to develop. There was a tendency to let phrases balloon in tone without sufficient reason, sometimes for a word to be distractingly emphasized. I think of Schumann’s Eichendorff Liederkreis, and the phrase in ‘Schöne Fremde’ when he could sing ‘Was sprichst du wirr wie in Träumen, zu mir phanTASTische Nacht?’, where Gérard Souzay would spin a simpler line more evocative of mystery and fantasy. Perhaps this was in part the product of the literary awareness that would always be rethinking poetic nuances, willing to renew and not merely repeat interpretation.

 

No artist did more to extend appreciation of the whole world of Lieder: not only Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and Wolf (whom he cared for less), but pre-Schubert Lieder (a fine record of Zelter, some C.P.E. Bach), Beethoven, Cornelius, Franz, Strauss, Liszt and in particular Loewe. He sang the ballads wonderfully, and one cannot imagine a more sensitive performance of one of Loewe’s most beautiful songs, setting the poem from Part II of Faust as Lynceus, guardian of the tower, gives thanks for the precious gift of sight. I barely knew him, certainly not well enough to get far beyond the courtesy and charm, the friendliness and kindness, but once, working with him on a television programme, I tried to persuade him to extend his already vast repertory to the songs of Weber, a composer I was then much concerned with. He was doubtful, but some years later he did record a fine Weber recital with Hartmut Höll. What a Lysiart he would have made, if a staging of Euryanthe had come his way.

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