The great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died on May 18 at age 86. In his later years, Fischer-Dieskau expressed concern that his contribution would be forgotten, but that seems unlikely in light of his vast recorded output.
There have been tributes to him by many luminaries of the music world, some of whom, such as tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Thomas Hampson, have not only praised his work but also his supportive attitude toward them.
Fischer-Dieskau was extraordinarily versatile, recognized as probably the leading German lieder singer of the post-war period. He was an important singer of opera from Wagner and Mozart to Verdi and contemporary composers, such as Hans Werner Henze, and of choral works (from Bach’s cantatas to Britten’s War Requiem, which he performed at the debut and recorded with the composer conducting). In addition, he was a teacher, conductor, and author of scholarly books on music.
Fischer-Dieskau’s career lasted more than 40 years and versions of his recordings have been constantly reissued.
The ones I prize the most are from the 1960s when he was in his prime and, in the lieder recordings, was usually accompanied by pianist Gerald Moore who worked with many of the most important singers, from John McCormack to Victoria de los Angeles.
Two treasures of the catalogue are the Schubert song cycles. Fischer-Dieskau recorded Winterreise (Winter Journey) seven times in the studio, plus there are recordings of live performances. Although I haven’t heard all of them, the 1962 recording on EMI is a standout.
Fischer-Dieskau had first performed the work when he was 17 years old; the concert was interrupted by a bombing by the Royal Air Force. The singer was later drafted into the German army and spent two years as a prisoner of war.
Fischer-Dieskau had recorded Winterreise with Moore in 1955 and later recorded again with him in 1972. The other recordings have piano accompanists who were famous as solo artists, such as Daniel Barenboim and Murray Perahia.
Some may find the piano work on the later recordings more compelling—Moore’s restrained attitude is expressed by the title of his memoirs—Am I Playing Too Loud?—but, while the baritone’s work is always thoughtful, his tone quality deteriorated over time.
EMI Classics has also released the Fischer-Dieskau/Moore 1961 rendition of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Miller-Maid). Again, there is a range of emotions (love, jealousy, and ultimately despair and death). While the singer and pianist returned to the song cycle later, the protagonist is a young man and is best portrayed by the singer when his voice is at its freshest.
Fauré’s Requiem (1962 version on EMI) may not be central to Fischer-Dieskau’s legacy since he has only two solos but the recording, conducted by André Cluytens, is worth buying. The baritone’s Offertoire and Libera me are as well sung as any I have heard.
The other soloist is soprano Victoria de los Angeles. The Requiem may lack the drama of Verdi or Berlioz—Fauré was attempting to convey the serenity and deliverance at death rather than the horror—but the work has become popular, partly as a result of this recording.
Even those who don’t listen to classical music will recognize the tune of Pie Jesu. The CD also contains Debussy’s Images.
A Buried Treasure
Fischer-Dieskau also made many memorable recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. The label has recently released a buried treasure: a live recording of a concert in 1964 of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
Josef Krips conducts the Wiener Symphoniker (Vienna Symphony Orchestra) and the soloists are Fischer-Dieskau and the great tenor Fritz Wunderlich, who tragically died in an accident two years later, when he was only 35 years old. Both soloists are in top form.
While some may prefer the tenor-mezzo (or contralto) combination for this work (for example, the exemplary Janet Baker), Fischer-Dieskau brings such commitment to the text and beauty to the music, as does Wunderlich, that this recording is a must for lovers of the work.
Famous baritone Thomas Hampson remarked after Fischer-Dieskau’s death that “You have to recognize him as one of the greatest vocal artists, period, full-stop.” Fortunately, we have the recordings that document his artistry.
Barry Bassis writes about music, theater, travel, and dining for various publications.
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