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8.111300 - MAHLER, G.: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen / Kindertotenlieder / SCHUMANN, R.: Liederkreis (Fischer-Dieskau) (1952-1955)
Great Singers • Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
“The depth of insight and the strength of personality behind it have made him not merely a singer much heard in public, but also one who influences the course of singing and the practice of his own contemporaries”. Thus commented John Steane in his indispensable book of singing and singers entitled The Grand Tradition (Duckworth, 1974) when writing about the German baritone Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau. This singer follows in the vocal tradition of Heinrich Schlusnus, Friedrich Schorr and Herbert Janssen, in addition to contemporaries such as Hermann Prey and Eberhard Waechter. But there is always something ‘special’ about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau whether it be an awareness of the text, an inflection or the sheer musical quality which makes his singing stand out. Of course the range of what he sang was enormous, covering the periods of baroque, classical, romantic, modern and contemporary as well as the number of languages he mastered for the recital room, the opera house or the recording studio. Little wonder therefore that his importance over the second half of the twentieth century was so important and significant. He possessed a virtually flawless vocal technique, as well as a remarkable ability to convey the right tonal colour and nuance of a musical phrase with a wonderful command of rhythm. A weakness in his early career was a certain explosive emphasis to certain words and on occasions to overloading climaxes.
Christened Albert Dietrich Fischer (it was his father who conjoined his own mother’s maiden name of Dieskau to his own in 1934), he was born in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin on 28th May 1925, his parents being teachers. His introduction to music came early with piano lessons from the age of six. When he first saw Wagner’s Lohengrin, the impression was so marked that he was determined to become a heroic tenor. His voice later broke and settled on a high baritone one. His first recital occurred when he was only fifteen while still at school in January 1942. He then studied with the tenor Georg Walter, himself a renowned Lieder singer in his day. Before he could make his real début he was called up into the German army at the age of eighteen, serving in Italy before becoming a prisoner of war of the American forces in May 1945. Returning to Germany two years later he worked with Hermann Weissenborn and made his concert début in a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem in Badenweiler in 1947 as a very late replacement and without rehearsal, to be followed by a successful recital in Leipzig later that year. The turning-point in his career came in a new production by Heinz Tietjen of Verdi’s Don Carlos when he sang Posa at the Städtische Oper in Berlin under Fricsay to marked acclaim. He would appear at this house for over 35 years.
The year 1949 saw Fischer-Dieskau singing at the Vienna State Opera as well as in the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. His reputation soon spread to Britain where Beecham engaged him for the demanding baritone part in Delius’s Eine Messe des Lebens in London in June 1951, an occasion which proved memorable in every sense. The young singer soon made his first recordings in London with the pianist Gerald Moore, a partnership which would produce a remarkable artistic and creative fusion over the next quarter century in the concert hall and recording studio. It was from these sessions that he made his first Die schöne Müllerin with Walter Legge as producer. Such was the demand for his services on record that he had contracts with both EMI and Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft.
Fischer-Dieskau’s first appearance at the Salzburg Festival took place in August 1951 when he sang Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen under Furtwängler following a memorable Brahms German Requiem under this conductor in Vienna some months earlier. He returned to this festival in 1956 and continued yearly until 1967, appearing on the operatic stage and giving a Lieder recital with Gerald Moore for ten consecutive years from 1956 until 1965. Most of these were recorded and their subsequent release on CD has proved a valuable insight into Fischer-Dieskau’s live interpretations. He also appeared at the Bayreuth Festival during the years 1954-61 when he sang the Herald in Lohengrin, an unforgettable Wolfram in Tannhäuser, Kothner in Meistersinger and Amfortas in Parsifal. His American début took place in April 1955 with two concerts in Cincinatti, followed by further appearances in Minnesota and New York, both accompanied by Gerald Moore. In fact it was through the concert hall and recordings that Fischer-Dieskau’s American reputation was achieved as he never sang on the operatic stage on that continent. The baritone became a regular visitor to Britain either for recording purposes but also in the concert hall. He made his operatic début as a memorable Mandryka in Arabella at Covent Garden in 1965 and as Falstaff in Verdi’s opera two years later. He appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1952, first toured Japan in 1963 and enjoyed a most successful tour of Israel in 1971. He undertook his first conducting assignment with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in London two years later. He would later conduct for his wife, the soprano Júlia Várady.
On the operatic stage Fischer-Dieskau embraced mainly German and Italian rôles: these included Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso, Almaviva in Figaro, Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Jochanaan in Salome, Olivier and the Count in Capriccio, Doktor Faust, Mathis der Maler, Wozzeck, Renato in Un ballo in maschera, and, finally in 1976, Hans Sachs. He also created the rôles of Gregor Mittenhofer in Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers (May 1961) and the title part in Reiman’s Lear (July 1978).
While Fischer-Dieskau’s operatic activities were significant, it is as a Lieder singer that he will be best remembered. His repertoire consisted of well in excess of a thousand songs, covering Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Cornelius, Loewe, Haydn, Liszt, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Telemann and Wolf in addition to less well-known composers, including many contemporaries such as Blacher, Fortner, Henze, Reimann, Reutter, Schwarz-Schilling and von Einem. He also embraced French chanson with Debussy, Fauré and Milhaud among others. He recorded virtually his entire song repertoire and in doing so became the most prolific recording artist of his time.
He also compiled The Fischer-Dieskau Book of Lieder (London, 1976), an autobiography Nachklang (Stuttgart, 1988), published in English as Echoes of a Lifetime (London, 1989), in addition to books on the Lieder of Schubert (New York, 1977) and Schumann (London, 1992), and on Wagner and Nietzsche (1976).
An English composer with whom Fischer-Dieskau worked and was associated was Benjamin Britten (1913- 1976). When the composer wrote his choral War Requiem for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral he had the voice of the German baritone in mind. The first performance in June 1962 created a profound and marked effect and the following year they cemented that relationship with a now famous recording. Three years later Britten composed his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake for the German baritone who gave the première at the 1965 Aldeburgh Festival.
In 1983 Fischer-Dieskau was appointed Professor of Voice at the Berlin Hochschule für Kunste and eventually retired from the concert hall in 1992 to spend the next few years teaching, conducting and painting. His first wife was the cellist Irmgard Poppen, whom he married in 1949, but who died tragically young in 1963 following problems when giving birth. Then followed unsuccessful marriages to the actress Ruth Leuwerik (1965-67) and Christina Ougel-Schule (1968-75). In 1977 he married the Hungarian soprano Júlia Várady. His three sons from his first marriage are Mathias (a stage designer), Martin (a conductor) and Manuel (a cellist).
Fischer-Dieskau’s first major operatic recording was as Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde under Furtwängler, made in London in over twelve days in June 1952 with an outstanding cast of singers that included Kirsten Flagstad as the heroine and Ludwig Suthaus as the hero. The now legendary recording (Naxos 8.110321-24) was completed in less time than originally planned so it was decided to take the opportunity to record Mahler’s song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. It is pertinent to point out that half a century ago the music of Mahler was little known or heard. The Nazis had banned performances of his music during the years from 1933 to 1945 and thereby effectively removed his music from public awareness. Furthermore there was only slight knowledge of his music outside German-speaking countries. Thus it was quite a bold decision to record virtually unknown music at this time.
The cycle of four orchestral songs Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfaring Lad) to poems by Mahler himself, were written during the years 1883-85. Although written for voice and piano the composer always envisaged them as orchestral songs. He wrote them following the break-up of his love affair with the actress Johanna Richter. The songs are concerned with youth and in the main part folk-derived with the journey being undertaken in the springtime. The orchestra employed by Mahler is large for this his first major composition. The first song is a contrast between the scorned lover’s grief and his obvious delight in the joy of nature. The second depicts the young lover setting out on a bright clear morning, happy with the view of nature around him, only for him to become downcast and sad. The third, a fiery, impassioned and crazily demonic setting, depicts the ‘red-hot-knife thrust into his beloved’s breast’. The finale is the young lover’s final journey (here the composer introduces a mock funeral march idiom) before concluding in a sad folk-inspired vein
Following the death of Furtwängler in November 1954 EMI were keen to find a young, upcoming conductor who might prove a long-term replacement. They decided on Rudolf Kempe (1912-1976) and in his first batch of recordings in 1955 with the Berlin Philharmonic it was decided to include Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with Fischer-Dieskau. The resultant performance was widely praised when first released.
Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children) are settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert, three being composed in 1901 and the third and fourth dating from 1904. The composer’s wife, Alma, protested that in writing these songs Mahler was tempting fate. This seemed true when their older daughter Maria died of diphtheria in 1907. The writing of these songs recalled the composer’s own loss of several brothers in childhood. The composer had by now moved away from the folk-inspired mood of his earlier Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: here we find a lyrical vision of the Lied but with orchestral accompaniment. Mahler’s orchestra is smallish, totally lacking brass, using two horns (enlarged to four in the final song), double woodwind and strings. The opening song is concerned with the thought that sunshine fails to bring any comfort, while the second is nostalgic, recalling the star-like eyes of children. The third conveys the mood that even everyday life cannot banish the all too vivid memories of death and the fourth an impression the children have just wandered off into another world and that they will be reunited shortly. The final song depicts a raging storm and the appalling realisation that the parents should never have let the children out of the house, before tranquillity pervades.
Schumann wrote his twelve songs by Joseph Eichendorff (1788-1857) during May 1840. The concept of a cycle was his original intention but the more he composed the more the idea began to grow in his mind. The opening song, In der Fremde (Far from home), conveys the idea of hope though it is seen through death. The ensuing brief Intermezzo is in essence a suppressed yearning to love while the next, Waldesgesprach (Overheard in the woods), is an imaginary conversation between two disparate people. The fourth song is another of imagined and inward feeling of love but the next, Mondnacht (Moonlight), one of Schumann’s most memorable songs, is the intertwining of music and words. This is followed by the impression of a night breeze stirring among the leaves to convey a mood of gentle happiness. A change of mood occurs in the evocation of an old castle with a knight asleep in his watch-tower in a mood of stillness and tranquillity: a wedding party sails by far below in the valley. The eighth song, also entitled In der Fremde conveys the impression of vague sounds of the wood and half-remembered memories. Song nine, Wehmut (Sadness), tells of the poet comparing his song with that of the nightingales who lack his inner sufferings. The ensuing poem, Zwielicht (Twilight), is an impression of a gradually growing dark night the mood being heightened by the use of the low bass in the piano part. The following setting, Im Walde (In the forest), opens in hunting mode with a wedding procession far in the distance before a darker more personal mood is introduced. The final item, Frühlingsnacht (Spring night), is an ecstatic happy conflation of joy and tears in a brief love song.
As Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau himself once commented; “Impatience and curiosity should be the driving forces for a musician”. How apt a comment for his remarkable performing career.
Great Singers • Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911): Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) (Text: Gustav Mahler)
(Songs on the Death of Children) (Text: Friedrich Rückert)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-1856): Liederkreis, Op. 39 26:31 (Song Cycle) (Text: Joseph von Eichendorff)
Gerald Moore, piano
Reissue Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
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