‘What are the prerequisites to become a good Lieder singer?’
‘I would say:
ability to colour the tone
ability to nuance
understanding of the sung texts’
‘Aha! What about a beautiful voice?’
‘Not necessarily, but it’s no drawback.’
‘Which singer, in your opinion, fulfils all those prerequisites?’
‘There are several. If we limit the numbers to baritones Heinrich Schlusnus, Gerhard Hüsch, Hans Hotter, Gerard Souzay, Hermann Prey and Olaf Bär are high on my list, but at the top is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.’
‘Yeah, I’ve heard the name. Could you pick a recording that exemplifies this?’
‘No, I can pick hundreds, maybe thousands. No singer in the history of recorded Lieder has made more recordings, and most of them are very instructive. All right, towards the end of his long career his voice
deteriorated a little but he was still an ideal Lieder interpreter
- he fulfilled all the prerequisites listed above. If you want to hear him at the beginning of that career, with marvellous bloom and beauty to the voice and already exhibiting all the essential requirements for a Lieder singer, then this set with the three great Schubert cycles is where to start.’
‘What’s so special with this?’
‘Let’s start with Die schöne Müllerin.
It was recorded in October 1951 and by then he was 26 and a rather experienced singer. One can hear that over and over again. I’ll point out a few songs you can start listening to. Song number 6, Der Neugierige
(approx. ‘The curious boy’) is as good as any. He wants to find out whether the miller-maid loves him, but he won’t ask the flowers because he is no gardener, and he won’t ask the stars because they stand too high, but he asks the little brook. The brook is silent today and won’t say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and the boy begs him to answer, because those little words mean everything to him. You can hear him, almost whispering, but we at once understand through the intensity of his delivery that his heart is brimming over of curiosity. Please! Please! Let me know! One can almost see him going down on his knees … and you can’t imagine more beautiful singing!’
‘OK. It sounds like he means what he is singing.’
‘Exactly. He is communicating, and that’s what Lieder singing is all about. Let’s go to the next song, Ungeduld
(‘Impatience’). This is like a catalogue aria, where he tells us what he is going to do to let the girl know his feelings for her: He is going to carve it in the bark of trees, chisel it into pebbles, write it on every paper he finds. What? My heart belongs to you forever!
He is even going to teach a starling to sing it outside her window. And a lot more in the same vein. There is only one hang-up: Everybody must see it in his eyes and see that his cheeks burn - but she notices nothing! Schubert has in masterly fashion depicted the young man’s eagerness and larger-than-life wish to involve the whole world in helping him to convey this simple message to her, and Fischer-Dieskau’s rhythmic vividness and crystal clear enunciation, where the words fly out of his mouth like one thousand helpful starlings, make both the young man’s energy and his sorrow visible. You get the message?’
‘Just one more example. The penultimate song Der Müller und der Bach
is a dialogue between the miller-boy and the brook. Now the young man has lost faith in life and decides to end it under the water. Now listen how the singer individualizes his tone, colours it to differentiate the miller from the brook. This is another case of mastery. But don’t let go here. Return to the beginning of the cycle, get a copy of the text and/or a good English translation if your German is rusty, and follow the text and find out how diligently and sensitively the singer infuses life into the poems - with good help from Franz Schubert. You’ll find the German text here
and a good English translation here
While my young disciple withdraws for further study of Die schöne Müllerin
, which is a studio recording made by EMI, we’ll have a look at the other two which are recordings for RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor - the radio station in the American Sector of Berlin during the Cold War). They were transmitted to radio stations both at home and abroad. When Winterreise
was recorded in January 1948 Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was not yet 23. Schwanengesang
was set down the same year, date unknown. In both cycles Klaus Billing is a good, rather discreet accompanist.
followed Fischer-Dieskau throughout his career. The first time he performed it was in 1941, at the age of 16, which, at least partially, explains why one searches in vain for signs of immaturity, interpretatively and vocally. I have a number of his later recordings and naturally there are differences between all of them, if not in the basic concept but in details. In comparison these early offerings stand up very well. If, for instance, the early 1970s recording with Gerald Moore (DG) may be the touchstone version, there is also more of the ‘mannerisms’ that F-D was criticised for: overemphatic accentuations of syllables, hair-pin dynamics. Here in 1948 they are totally absent. There is such natural flow in the singing and he makes his points with smaller means.
I first wondered whether his very lowest notes were a fraction weaker than a few years later, but listen to Gefrorne Tränen
(tr. 3) and there is no lack of fullness. Der Lindenbaum
(tr. 5) is light in tone and beautifully natural, as though he more or less improvises a folk song. Then he darkens the tone in the second stanza. When he returns to the main melody at the end of the song, there is bitterness in his voice.
Naturalness is the keyword for the whole cycle. Even the powerful intensity of Der greise Kopf
(tr. 14) doesn’t sound in the least pompous or theatrical. The four last songs always seem to bring out the best from interpreters. Der Wirtshaus
(tr. 21) is deeply touching and here he shows that he can sustain a very slow tempo without breaking the legato line. Here, as in some other songs, there is a certain grittiness and I thought at first that he wasn’t fully recovered from a cold, but I believe it is instead caused by the recording, since in the last song there is some distortion. An authoritative Mut
(tr. 22) is the last attempt of the wanderer to shake off his premonitions of death. In Die Nebensonnen
(tr. 23) we know that he has already one foot on the other side - magically soft last stanza - and in Der Leiermann
(tr. 24) he gradually vanishes from sight.
was not Schubert’s swan-song, however, and he seems to have been unaware of his illness until the bitter end. Whether he conceived the thirteen songs that he sent to the publisher shortly before his death as a cycle - as Otto Erich Deutsch suggests - is still open to debate. It was not Schubert who chose the title Schwanengesang
, it was the publisher Tobias Haslinger. It was also he who added Die Taubenpost
, supposed to be Schubert’s last Lied, to the cycle. The published order of the songs follows the original manuscript in Schubert’s hand: the seven Rellstab poems followed by the six by Heine and then Haslinger added Die Taubenpost
as a kind of appendix.
In the present recording this song instead comes first. A bit surprising, perhaps but no real harm is done, other than the main focus being somewhat displaced when the cycle ends with the hair-raising Der Doppelgänger
rather than the lighter and gentler Die Taubenpost.
It is sung by F-D with rhythmic elegance. With present-day technology it is easy to programme the order of the songs otherwise if one wants. Also these songs are full of interpretative felicities. Frühlingssehnsucht
(tr. 4) is full of expectancy, Ständchen
(tr. 5) vibrant with feeling, light and bouncing - another example of F-D’s sense of rhythmic freedom, a sudden ritardando - and it doesn’t sound pretentious. Aufenthalt
(tr. 6) is sturdy but flexible - a contradiction in terms, I know, but that’s what it is - and a wholly magical soft ending. That F-D also was to become an important opera singer is easy to deduce from this song; even more so from In der Ferne
(tr. 7) and Der Atlas
(tr. 9). These are remarkably mature readings. In opera he was more controversial. His mastery in Mozart has rarely been questioned and his many Wagnerian roles have also been universally hailed. There were divided opinions on his Hans Sachs and his Verdi singing has been wildly debated. Personally I’m still convinced that his Rigoletto has few superiors.
All the Heine songs are marvellously sung here and with F-D, more than most other singers, one becomes aware of the wide scope of emotions they encompass.
The sound is a lot more than only serviceable - bar the distortions in Winterreise
. Lovers of Schubert and/or F-D shouldn’t hesitate: It’s the young, even very young, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau that is on display here but these readings are no mere blueprints of greatness to come, they are early greatness already manifest.
Die schöne Müllerin