The death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on 18 May 2012 robbed the world of arguably the 20th-century’s greatest and most influential singer. Further to Tully Potter’s consideration of his recorded art, I thought it might be useful to add one-or-two other performances that stand-out.
First of all though it is worth remembering what the great EMI producer Suvi Raj Grubb had to say about Fischer-Dieskau’s voice covering far too wide a dynamic range to be accommodated on LP without some compression. This was a big voice, and that his singing career spanned over fifty years is testimony to the superb way that it was managed.
Tully mentions a live Schumann performance on Orfeo, but the entire 10-CD set of his Salzburg Festival recitals (dating from 1956 to 1977, with Gerald Moore, Erik Werba, Sawallisch and Richter as pianists) on that label is an essential purchase, as are the Deutsche Grammophon Schubert and Hugo Wolf recitals with Richter from the mid-1970s. As with most artists, Fischer-Dieskau live is often far more spontaneous than in the studio, and the partnership with the 20th-century’s greatest pianist, Richter, is incendiary.
With regard to Italian opera he was at his finest as Iago in Verdi’s opera Otello with Barbirolli conducting. The way he breathes “E poi? E poi? La morte è il nulla” (And then? And then? Death is nothingness) in the ‘Credo’ vividly illustrates his contempt for such metaphysical nonsense about an afterlife. His singing of “Era la notte” (where he never rises above piano) puts the vast majority of Italian baritones to shame. At the end of Act Three, where Iago exults over the convulsing body of Otello, he trills (as marked, and which is – one suspects – technically beyond most performers of the role) on “Leone” and snarls his derision. Yes the tone is far from Italianate, but his Lieder-like attention to detail and unrivalled range of tonal shading, makes Iago a devastatingly pitiless, conniving manipulator of human emotions, rather than a cardboard two-dimensional villain. As such Fischer-Dieskau is the finest of all Iagos.
In German opera his portrayal of the wretched Gunther in the stupendous Solti Götterdämmerung, has never been equalled, nor has his portrayal of the Count in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio.
Finally there is Bruno Monsaingeon’s film Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Autumn Journey, where the great man talks about his art, performance and music, which ends with a recital of Schubert songs from late in his career that should be required listening for all students of singing. Nothing is forced; there is no undue emphasis or underlining, only a sense of quite authority, contemplation and profound melancholy.
Schubert’s setting of An die Musik is quite rightly hailed as the greatest hymn to music ever written, and its two verses (in William Mann’s translation) also sum up Fischer-Dieskau’s art and provide a fitting tribute to a great artist.
O blessed art, how often in dark hours, /
When the savage ring of life tightens around me, /
have you kindled warm love in my heart, /
have transported me to a better world!
Often a sigh has escaped from your harp, /
A sweet, sacred harmony of yours /
has disclosed the heaven of better times for me./
You blessed art, I thank you for that!