Posts Tagged ‘Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’

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.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, RIP

May 18, 2012

The great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has died, just a few days shy of his 87th birthday. He had a wonderful voice, but, more than that, he was a great singer. His vast repertoire ranged from Mozart and (pre-eminently) Schubert to Wagner and Mahler. Alex Ross chooses the right word, calling him a “monumental” figure in twentieth-century music making.

His recording of Schubert’s Die Winterreise, with Jorg Demus on the piano, was one of the first classical music recordings I ever bought, and I have treasured it ever since. His classic recording of Mahler lieder is another desert island disc for me. And just these past few months I have been slowly working my way through the massive set of Schubert lieder that he did with Gerald Moore; I will now continue that listening project in a more sober mood.

Requiescat in pace.

Great moments in opera: Elektra

May 9, 2011

When I think of Richard Strauss as an opera composer, I tend to think of his civilized dramas and gentle comedies such as Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Capriccio. His early opera Elektra reminds me that there was another side to his art. Elektra is strident, fierce, saturated with dissonance, and drenched in blood. It maintains a tone of frenzied intensity almost from beginning to end. It is, I imagine, difficult to love — but, then again, so is the character whom it portrays.

The libretto is quite faithful to Sophocles’ tragic drama, apart from the fact that the Chorus does not appear. Elektra, determined to avenge the murder of Agamemnon, her father, is awaiting the return of her brother, Orestes. The murderess is, of course, their mother, Clytemnestra, who has since re-married. Elektra lives now in the shadows, haunting her father’s grave, consumed with anger and hatred for her mother. The central action of the drama is the long-awaited return of Orestes (disguised and bearing cunning tidings of his own death) and the brutal slaughter of Clytemnestra and her husband.

The great bulk of the stage time, here as in Sophocles’ original, is given over to speeches and one-on-one conversations. Elektra speaks first with her sister Chrysothemis, trying to persuade her to join in the revenge, and then with her mother, each threatening the other in a very horrifying exchange. (Interestingly, Sophocles allows Clytemnestra a persuasive defence — that she killed Agamemnon to avenge his earlier murder of their daughter, Iphigenia — but, unless I missed it, Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal deny her that comfort.)

The music of Elektra is, as I said above, harsh and frequently dissonant. Inspired, I assume, by Wagner’s example, the music flows like a bloody river, restless and often torrential. Strauss abuses tonality throughout, but, like Wagner before him, he honours it in the breach, for the expressive power of the music — its power to express horror, vengeance, and agony — relies on our having tonal expectations for him to violate. The result is not easy to listen to, and certainly not beautiful, but it does, if only by sheer force, make an impression.

This opera is unusual insofar as it is dominated by female voices: we are, I believe, well into the second half before the first male voice is heard, and that in passing. Further along there are extended passages for Orestes and for Aegisthus (Clytemnestra’s new husband), but the finale is reserved again for female voices only. I am not aware of any other opera which tips the vocal balance so far toward the women.

I have chosen two excerpts to highlight. I apologize in advance that they are both rather long; this is not an opera that moves quickly. Both are taken from a DVD performance that I watched this week, with Leonie Rysanek singing the lead role, and with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Bohm.

The first excerpt begins when Elektra finally recognizes Orestes, who has been away from home for so many years, and for whom she has waited, longing for the day when he will help her to avenge their father’s death. Unfortunately there are no subtitles on this clip, but the acting is so good that I think the drama comes through anyway. (A rather bad English translation is available here; search for “List! No man stirreth!”) Orestes is played here by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The other excerpt is the opera’s finale, which is substantially a duet between Elektra and her sister, Crysothemis. The murders of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have been done, and their bloody, bloated, and hideous corpses lie on the stage. In the closing pages of the score Elektra begins a frenzied dance of victory that ends with her collapsing dead beside the bodies of those whose deaths she had so long sought. This clip does have English subtitles, so further words from me are superfluous.