Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau, who died May 18, was a unique performer. In a very long career he managed to sing and record almost anything that a classically trained baritone could possibly sing. While best known as the foremost interpreter of German art songs he appeared almost as often in the opera house as in the concert hall. The facts of his life and career are well known and can be reviewed here. He was likely the most prolific recording artist in the history of the medium – not even Placido Domingo comes close. Somehow, he never appeared at the Metropolitan Opera. Their loss.
He did not have the great organ that overwhelmed the listener with its power and size. His specialty was subtlety, nuance, and meaning; it was these characteristics that set him apart from everyone else. How he managed to find the time to learn all the music he sang apart from recording and performing them seems to defy thermodynamics. Let’s start with Italian opera. Here’s Rigoletto’s great second act scena. Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!. He catches both the fury and pathos embodied in the piece. Rafael Kubelik conducted this 1964 recording.
Fisher-Dieskau could also do Rossini. This 1956 performance for RAI is Tell’s third act aria ‘Sois immobile’ in Italian. Gugliemo Tell Resta immobile. This is the scene when Tell asks his son to stay very still before the famous apple shot. This is as Italianate a rendition as could be expected from anyone south of the Alps.
One does not usually associate Fisher-Dieskau with Puccini, but here he’s as menacing a Scarpia as can be desired. This is the finale of the first act of Tosca. Tre sbirri, una carozza…Te Deum
Wagner was also part of his vocal aresenal Here is the final scene of the second Ring opera – Wotan’s farewell and magic fire music. Die Walküre – Wotan’s Abschied und Feuerzauber. Fischer-Dieskau shows how much Wagner gains when sung by a singer with a great sense of vocal line and who fully expresses the intent of the music. There is no barking here.
Mozart was an integral part of the baritone’s repertoire. Here is the Count’s third act aria from Le Nozze di Figaro – Vedrò mentr’io sospiro. This is the number that the Count sings just before he’s about to decide if Figaro must marry Marcelina who, of course turns out to be the barber’s mother – Oedipus Schmedopus.
Now to Lieder. I can’t resist starting with this: Wiegenlied. No matter how many times you’ve heard Brahms’ most famous song, this interpretation will grab your attention.
Mahler’s Ging heut Morgen übers Feld is the second of his ‘Songs of a Wayfarer”. This was Mahler’s first song cycle. ‘I Went This Morning over the Field’ is the happiest of the four songs that comprise the cycle, though it concludes with the speaker deciding that the happiness he seeks can’t be found in a field of flowers. If the music seems familiar it’s because it’s used in the first movement of Mahler’s first symphony.
Richard Strauss’ song Morgen is one of his most beautiful and famous. It was written in 1894 when the composer was 29 years old. This is the original version. Strauss later orchestrated the work.
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) is known mainly for his lieder. Sonne der Schlummerlosen is set to a German translation of Byron’s poem ‘Sun of the Sleepless’. It’s eight lines of gloom. Wolf captures its spirit with equal gloom. Fischer-Dieskau was a champion of the German composer who though a critical success after his early death from syphilis still is an acquired taste.
DFK did not sing in French very often. This is his interpretation of Debussy’s lovely Beau Soir. Recorded rather late in his career, he is not as comfortable in French as in German or Italian. It’s still a fine effort.
I’ll conclude with Schubert. Here DFK was unmatched. First Schubert’s paean to his own art – An Die Musik. The song was composed when Schubert was 20 years old. In other word, when he was fully mature as an artist. It is a simple and profoundly touching affirmation of music’s hold on the human spirit.
Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-GurdyMan) is the 24th and final song of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey). It is a chilling and shattering conclusion to the art song’s supreme achievement. An old organ grinder is playing alone. No one has given him any money. The dogs growl at him. He keeps on playing. The narrator thinks he will join him. DFK recorded this cycle seven times because there’s universe in these 24 songs. I’ve embedded a Youtube video of Fisher-Dieskau singing the song as it contains English subtitles allowing an English speaker a little more insight into the genius of both the performer and composer.
Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau was a lyric baritone whose mastery of his craft allowed him to perform works that would ordinarily been beyond such a light voice. But his interpretive gifts and suberb technique took him wherever he wanted to go. His width and depth are unmatched. It will be a long time before another with this range, control, and artistry again comes our way. His recordings are an enduring gift.