Fischer-Dieskau and the art of song

July 16, 2012

When the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died in May, I posted a brief appreciation of him. A longer, more informed, but no less appreciative appraisal by Heather Mac Donald appeared a few weeks ago at City Journal:

I usually reject the declinist conceit in classical music — the belief that the Golden Age of performance lies behind us. But when it comes to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the Olympian German baritone who died last month at age 86, I must succumb. German art songs, Lieder, have never had an interpreter of such exquisite sensibility; whether they ever will again remains to be seen. Yes, Fischer-Dieskau’s lyrical voice was stunningly beautiful, with a legato that enveloped the listener in the warmth of the most tender humanity. But it was what he did with that natural beauty that set him apart. No other musician has brought such subtlety of phrasing to the song literature. Each note and syllable were characterized by an individual nuance of breath, vibrato, and pulse, the product of a probing intelligence that at every moment considered how verbal meaning interacted with musical line. As a result, a song in Fischer-Dieskau’s hands led one to contemplate in awe the mysteries of human communication itself.

She goes on to discuss several of his recordings in detail, focusing on his legacy as an interpreter of Schubert’s lieder. It’s an interesting article, from which one can learn not only something about Fischer-Dieskau, and about Schubert, but also something about the art of listening.

She draws special attention to the monumental set of Schubert recordings which he made with pianist Gerald Moore in the 1960s and 1970s for Deutsche Grammophon:

The purchase of the Deutsche Grammophon sets, priced in the hundreds of dollars, may seem like a daring extravagance, but it is really a milestone commitment to musical culture—the equivalent of buying all of The Remembrance of Things Past or the complete Greek tragedies and comedies.

Agreed on all counts but one: the Deutsche Grammophon set to which she refers, all 20-odd hours of it, can be purchased for less than $100. It’s a steal.

By the way, Heather Mac Donald (whose name really does have a space where there normally isn’t one) writes about music quite regularly for City Journal, and she is well worth following. I can’t speak for her writings on political matters.

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8 Responses to “Fischer-Dieskau and the art of song”

  1. Mac Says:

    I’ll have to read that, with an eye especially on the art of listening part. I really am slightly mystified by that level of sensitivity and discrimination toward classical music performance. I think it may be too late now. If I’d listened more widely when I was younger, maybe I would have developed it. But I typically have one recording of a given work, and that’s the only one I ever hear. And I’ve tended to neglect vocal music. I actually own DF-D’s Winterreise and have only heard it once, and that not very attentively.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Some people do get very involved in picking up subtle differences between recordings — what would classical music critics do if not that! Like you, I think that can be taken too far. With certain pieces, however, I find it rewarding to hear different interpretations. For me this is especially true of vocal and choral music, to which I am, for some reason, more sensitive to nuance than with instrumental music.

    Probably you didn’t latch onto Die Winterreise because you live in a place that doesn’t have a proper winter. I love to listen to it through headphones while walking, staggering, or sliding through a wintery landscape, preferably in a storm that reduces visibility and buffets me this way and that. Of course, opportunities to hear it that way are all too rare. Even so, it is one of those pieces for which I have assembled quite a few different interpretations. I wouldn’t want to be without my favourites (A, B, and C). This winter I am looking forward to getting this one.

  3. Mac Says:

    Yes, there’s such a thing as taking it too far, but I don’t get very far at all, and I’m sure there must be something there that I’m missing.

    I was thinking I had another DF-D recording, an old LP, and I just looked: it’s Schwanengesang. I recently got a new turntable. Maybe I’ll give that disk a listen.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I don’t have F-D’s recording of those songs — but they are wonderful songs.

  5. Mac Says:

    They are indeed. I listened to…pardon the archaism…side 1 on Saturday, and side 2 on Sunday. I think I liked the second set–mostly the Heine settings–a little better, but that may have been because I was a little distracted for the first set by an unfortunate tendency to listen to the equipment more than to the music. I kept thinking the balance on the new turntable wasn’t quite right and wanting to fiddle with it, but eventually I got that mostly out of my head. I’m surprised you don’t have this recording, since you like F-D so much. Even though, as I said, I’m not that discriminating about singers, this strikes me as one of those golden recordings.

  6. cburrell Says:

    I’m sure it is. Was it the recording with Gerald Moore at the piano? That’s the one I would like to get, someday. I like to leave certain golden apples hanging, so that I can think with pleasure of the day when I will pluck them. It’s deferred gratification raised to the level of an art. :D

    You have a working turntable? How often do you play records on it?

  7. Mac Says:

    Yes, it’s the Gerald Moore one, recorded in the mid-1960s.

    At the age of 63, my attitude toward those golden apples is that it may be now or never. It’s more than a little absurd, but I continued to acquire music over the years when I hardly listened at all, and since I still don’t have a whole lot of time to listen, it’s entirely possible I won’t live long enough to get really well acquainted with a lot of what I own, both classical and other. To say nothing of what I don’t own, e.g. half the Bruckner symphonies.

    Indeed I do have a working turntable. I just replaced the one I’d had since the mid-1980s, which always had problems, with a really nice one–budget-level by audiophile standards, superb by mine. I rarely used the old one, but I’m really enjoying the new one, which I’ve had only for a few weeks.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Well, congratulations on your new turntable. It must feel like your whole record collection has a new lease on life. That can be good and bad, as you say. I certainly understand that burdensome feeling that too much music can give one. I suppose that the wisest course is to simply take it day by day, thankful for whatever beauty one is able to see and hear. It sounds like a wise course, anyway; I am working on it.

    A friend once told me that he was consoled by the thought that he would never come to the end of all the good books and good music in the world.That gave me pause, for I had felt all that goodness as a kind of pressure, something to be thrown off by reading and hearing as much as I possibly could. I wanted to get it all “under my belt”. I think his attitude is the better of the two. Again, I’m working on it.


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