BBC Legends – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Sviatoslav Richter & Benjamin Britten

0 of 5 stars

Romanzen aus Ludwig Tiecks “Die schöne Magelone”, Op.33
Auf der Donau, D553; Der Wanderer, D649; An die Freunde, D654; Prometheus, D674; Aus Heliopolis II, D754; Der Wanderer an den Mond, D870; Fischerweise, D881

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) with Sviatoslav Richter (piano) [Brahms] & Benjamin Britten (piano)

Brahms recorded 20 June 1965 in Aldeburgh Parish Church;Schubert on 8 June 1972 in Snape Maltings [both Aldeburgh Festival]

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: May 2009
BBCL 4255-2
Duration: 76 minutes



Brahms’s setting of Ludwig Tieck’s “Die schöne Magelone” had relatively few recordings in the early decades of LP. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau himself made the earliest in 1957 with Jörg Demus. Further studio recordings by him of the work were made in partnership with Daniel Barenboim and Sviatoslav Richter, while a live Salzburg Festival performance with Gerald Moore from 1964 was issued by EMI. Now Medici Arts has gone back to the golden years of music-making at the court of Benjamin Britten in Suffolk, celebrating the combined art of the German baritone and the Russian pianist in a live performance.

The work has suffered from comparison with the narrative-based cycles of Schubert and Schumann, perhaps also from its dimensions: it is not long enough to sustain a complete recital. The songs can, I suppose, be presented as discrete Lieder but surely represent a more coherent experience if placed in the contest of the narrative work from which they come, a tale by Ludwig Tieck of mediaeval chivalry, adventure and courtly love. This requires for the listener at least a printed summary of the action; a handful of recordings include spoken narration (in Brigitte Fassbaender’s recording the mezzo-soprano does it herself). Also some indication of which songs are not from the mouth of Peter the hero should surely be de rigueur. In this Aldeburgh Festival broadcast from the BBC archives we are left to fend for ourselves. No texts or translations are provided, let alone the contextual material. Medici Arts is no doubt marketing this release to collectors who already possess a recording of the work.

Can anyone say that they love the sheer sound of Fischer-Dieskau’s voice, as people delight in the sound of, say, Montserrat Caballé, Kathleen Ferrier, Marian Anderson, John McCormack, Robert Merrill or Ezio Pinza? I doubt it, because in a way there is no single Fischer-Dieskau sound. The voice is so pliant, chameleon-like in character and in constant flux. It is also put exclusively to the service of enacting the words he is singing so that it can hardly be appreciated independently of them.

There are, nevertheless, certain sounds that he can produce to accompany particular emotions and experiences in the poetic narrative. The familiar floating mezza voce, for example, associated with tenderness, delight or dreams, the harsh loud tone bristling with aggression for anger or hostility, Add to that the ability to colour words to convey melancholy, nostalgia, anxiety, impatience, indeed any feeling you care to mention. Of course he came under critical attack for overdoing that strategy – chopping the music into small pieces, adopting a different colour for every bar. The main limitation of the voice was its inability to expand like an opening flower, as that of an Italian baritone would. Rather, he could only register moments of emotional intensity by increasing the pressure on the tone. As the voice aged the tone began to fray at the top and forcefulness increasingly turned to hectoring.

Now that Fischer-Dieskau (born 1925) has been in retirement for more than fifteen years (this review written in May 2009), however, it is surely time to stop criticising him for what he was not and to rejoice at what he did so well: illuminating the union of words and music in the core repertoire of German Lieder.

This release does that and more.

Fortunately in both these live outings the voice was in prime condition. Of course the mannerisms are present: Sudden fortes, sharply tapering crescendos and jabbing emphasis on individual words of the text will compromise the enjoyment of some. There is a page in the penultimate song where the listener’s delight in the velvety rendering of a soft passage marked molto dolce is marred by the following bars of transition back to G major, intended to be crescendo poco a poco, leading to poco forte but here turning into a vulgar rant.

On a larger scale, however, any fear that the baritone would ignore the wood in his concentration on the trees is scotched by the first song. He and Richter observe its shape. The attention-grabbing opening with its swinging arpeggios establishes the physical exhilaration of youth on horseback but this quickly subsides as, to the quiet background rhythms of equine travel, he describes an equally important joy in personal relationships in the prime of life. Finally it is the venerable father who appears to pass on the message to his son. If there were any doubt that Fischer-Dieskau had a smooth legato in his armoury it is disproved by phrases here such as “dann wählt er bescheiden das Fräulein, das ihm nur von allen gefällt”. Conversely, in the second song, marked kräftig, he punches out detached lines commensurate with this celebration of combat.

Richter invests all his artistry in several important preludes (that to ‘Sind es Schmerzen, sind es Freuden’, reminiscent of the ‘Funeral March’ in Chopin B flat minor Piano Sonata), interludes and postludes and just as much in those moments which anticipate the entry of the voice and a change of atmosphere. Twice in ‘Liebe kam aus fernen Landen’ the final few bars of transition to the recurrence of the opening melody are magically characterised in this way. His recognised tours de force are the furious, swirling semiquavers of ‘Verzweiflung’, following the climbing and receding chordal phrases over left-hand syncopation in the sublime lullaby ‘Ruhe, Süssliebchen’, but the concluding song of Set 2, ‘Wie soll ich die Freude’, with its contrasted episodes, is equally impressive.

Interestingly, David Patmore in his booklet note relates Richter’s comment that “working with Dieter isn’t easy”. One senses occasionally the demands of the baritone’s views on interpretation: a sudden and short-lived accelerando, a breathless tempo such as that beginning “Komm, liebe Waffenstücke” in the eighth song. However, mostly one admires the skills of two great musicians, multiplied together to create an immensely rewarding outcome. They conspicuously come together in Sulima’s song (No.13), where Richter’s dotted rhythms are crisp but never abrasive, matching Fischer-Dieskau’s controlled interpretation of the text.

The same is true of Fischer-Dieskau’s collaboration with Benjamin Britten in miscellaneous Schubert songs in the different acoustic of Snape Maltings seven years later. The singer is in marginally-less fresh voice and the balance favours the pianist more, for which one is grateful, given that in the three subdued, relatively unfamiliar songs with which they begin Britten brings out detail in the accompaniments which promote them towards the stature of those to come. Britten’s bass trills in “Auf der Donau” rumble vividly, the pacing footsteps form an ominous background throughout “An die Freunde”. Both artists treat Schlegel’s “Der Wanderer” with the utmost gentleness, hardly ever rising above mezzo piano.

The mood changes for the next two songs. Britten’s powerful chording in “Prometheus” is sometimes untidy but he recovers his form in time to second the defiance of nature by the alpinist in the second of Mayrhofer’s “Heliopolis” songs. The singer avoids the risk of exaggeration in the different episodes of the Goethe setting, neither does he overdo the outdoor heartiness of the latter, though there is no lack of bravura from pianist. Then, to round off the recital (surely this was not the whole programme?), two warm-hearted songs. I can think of no more compact, witty treatment of the opening chords of “Der Wanderer an den Mond”, and the interpretation of “Fischerweise” is endearing, not over-sophisticated.

Any recorded performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has the seeds of controversy within it. Perhaps I have done what the singer was often accused of, concentrating too much on individual details! Future generations will have this evidence of his analytical style in live performance and will be distant enough from the contemporary debate to assess the singer’s approach free of the heat of controversy which has been generated during his lifetime.

The performances have been transferred with skill and with a strong sense of an audience being present. A few ill-timed coughs and squeaks in the Schubert are a mild irritant compared with the impression of spontaneity which comes across throughout.

  • Texts and translations can be found at Medici Arts (link below)
  • Medici Arts

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