Gerald Moore and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

• Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, born 28 May 1925; died 18 May 2012

With the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, we note with sadness the end of an era of excellent art song performance. You can sample some of DFD’s fine contemporaries on another page, but this one will try to assemble the obits and various observations about this artist. Though it may not always be available, here’s a Newshour tribute:

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose beautiful voice and mastery of technique made him the 20th century’s pre-eminent interpreter of art songs, died on Friday [18 May 2012] at his home in Bavaria. He was 86.

His wife, the soprano Julia Varady, confirmed his death to the German press agency DPA.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was by virtual acclamation one of the world’s great singers from the 1940s to his official retirement in 1992, and an influential teacher and orchestra conductor for many years thereafter.

He was also a formidable industry, making hundreds of recordings that pretty much set the modern standard for performances of lieder, the musical settings of poems first popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. His output included the many hundreds of Schubert songs appropriate for the male voice, the songs and song cycles of Schumann and Brahms, and those of later composers like Mahler, Shostakovich and Hugo Wolf. He won two Grammy Awards, in 1971 for Schubert lieder and in 1973 for Brahms’s “Schöne Magelone.”

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau (pronounced FEE-shur-DEES-cow) had sufficient power for the concert hall, and for substantial roles in his parallel career as a star of European opera houses. But he was essentially a lyrical, introspective singer whose effect on listeners was not to nail them to their seatbacks, but rather to draw them into the very heart of song.

The pianist Gerald Moore, who accompanied many great artists of the postwar decades, said Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had a flawless sense of rhythm and “one of the most remarkable voices in history — honeyed and suavely expressive.” Onstage, he projected a masculine sensitivity informed by a cultivated upbringing and by dispiriting losses in World War II: the destruction of his family home, the death of his feeble brother in a Nazi institution, induction into the Wehrmacht when he had scarcely begun his voice studies at the Berlin Conservatory.

His performances eluded easy description. Where reviewers could get the essence of a Pavarotti appearance in a phrase (the glories of a true Italian tenor!), a Fischer-Dieskau recital was akin to a magic show, with seamless shifts in dynamics and infinite shadings of coloration and character.

He had the good luck to age well, too. In 1988, at 62, he sang an all-Schumann program at Carnegie Hall, where people overflowed onto the stage to hear him. Donal Henahan, then the chief music critic of The New York Times, noted that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice had begun to harden in some difficult passages — but also that he was tall and lean and handsomer than ever, and had lost none of his commanding presence. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau described in his memoir “Reverberations” (1989) how his affinity for lieder had been formed in childhood. “I was won over to poetry at an early age,” he wrote. “I have been in its thrall all my life because I was made to read it, because it gave me pleasure, and because I eventually came to understand what I was reading.”

He discerned, he said, that “music and poetry have a common domain, from which they draw inspiration and in which they operate: the landscape of the soul.”

Albert Dietrich Fischer was born in Berlin on May 28, 1925, the youngest of three sons of Albert Fischer, a classical scholar and secondary school principal with relatively liberal ideas about education reform, and his young second wife, Theodora Klingelhoffer, a schoolteacher. (In 1934, Dr. Fischer added the hyphenated “Dieskau” to the family name; his mother had been a von Dieskau, descended from the Kammerherr von Dieskau, for whom J. S. Bach wrote the “Peasant Cantata.”)

Family members knew Dietrich, as he was called, as a shy, private child who nonetheless liked to entertain. He put on puppet shows in which he voiced all the parts, sometimes for an audience of one: his physically and mentally disabled brother, Martin, with whom he shared a room.

Before adolescence Dietrich was inducted into a Hitler Youth group where, he recalled years later, he was appalled by the officiousness as well as the brutality. His father died when he was 12. And he had just finished secondary school and one semester at the Berlin Conservatory when, in 1943, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front. He kept a diary there, calling it his “attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings.”

“Poems by Morgenstern,” one entry read. “It is a good idea to learn them by heart, to have something to fall back on.”

“Lots of cold, lots of slush, and even more storms,” read another. “Every day horses die for lack of food.” It was in Russia that he heard that his mother had been forced to send his brother to an institution outside Berlin. “Soon,” he wrote later, “the Nazis did to him what they always did with cases like his: they starved him to death as quickly as possible.”

And then his mother’s apartment in Lichterfelde was bombed. Granted home leave to help her, he found that all that remained of their possessions could be moved to a friend’s apartment in a handcart. But as early as his second day home, he and his mother began seeking out “theater, concerts, a lot of other music — defying the irrational world.”

Instead of returning to the disastrous campaign in Russia, he was diverted to Italy along with thousands of other German soldiers. There, on May 5, 1945, just three days before the Allies accepted the German surrender, he was captured and imprisoned. It turned out to be musical opportunity: soon the Americans were sending him around to entertain other P.O.W.’s from the back of a truck. The problem was, they were so pleased with this arrangement that they kept him until June 1947. He was among the last Germans to be repatriated.

With all that, he was still only 22 when he returned for further study at the Berlin Conservatory. He didn’t stay long. Called to substitute for an indisposed baritone in Brahms’s “German Requiem,” he became famous practically overnight. As he said, “I passed my final exam in the concert hall.”

Because of his youth, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had been in no position to make his own choices in the 1930s and ’40s, so he didn’t encounter the questions about Nazi ties that hung over many a prominent German artist after the war. (The soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, his frequent musical collaborator, repeatedly denied that she had joined the Nazi Party until confronted with evidence in 1983. “It was akin to joining a union,” she said in an explanatory letter to The Times, “and exactly for the same reason: to have a job.”)

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau gave his first professional lieder recital in Leipzig in the fall of 1947. Success followed success, with lieder performances in Britain and other European countries beginning in 1949. He first toured the United States in 1955, choosing for his New York debut to sing Schubert’s demanding “Winterreise” cycle without intermission.

Meanwhile, he had made his opera debut in 1948, singing Posa in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at Berlin’s Städtische Oper (later renamed the Deutsche Oper), where he was hired as principal lyric baritone. He also sang regularly at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and appeared frequently in the opera houses of Vienna, Covent Garden, Salzburg and Bayreuth.

Versatility was not the least of his assets. He tackled everything from Papageno in “The Magic Flute” — who knew that a goofy bird catcher could have immaculate diction? — to heavier parts like Wotan in “Das Rheingold” and Wolfram in “Tannhäuser.” He recorded more than three dozen operatic roles, Italian as well as German, along with oratorios, Bach cantatas and works of many modern composers, including Benjamin Britten, whose “War Requiem” he sang at its premiere in 1962.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was married in 1949 to his sweetheart from his student days, the cellist Irmgard Poppen. They had three sons: Matthias, who became a stage designer; Martin, a conductor; and Manuel, a cellist. Ms. Poppen did not live to see them grow: she died of complications after Manuel’s birth in 1963. For her husband, it was a profound, disorienting loss.

He was married again, to the actress Ruth Leuwerik, from 1965 to 1967, and again, to Christina Pugel-Schule, the daughter of an American voice teacher, from 1968 to 1975.

His fourth marriage, to Ms. Varady, the Hungarian soprano, in 1977, was a rewarding match. Like the many artists who studied with him more formally, Ms. Varady found him to be a kindly, constructive and totally unsparing mentor.

His insistence on getting things right comes through vividly in scenes of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau at rehearsal or conducting master class. In a widely circulated video, at the time, of him coaching a young Christine Schäfer, Ms. Schäfer is singing beautifully, or so it would seem to your average mortal, yet the smiling maestro interrupts time and again to suggest something better. And it isn’t merely that he is invariably correct; it’s also that when he rises to sing just a few illustrative notes, the studio is instantly a stage, and he illuminates it with what seems to be an inner light. Even better is a documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon, “Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Autumn Journey” with archival and up-to-date footage of a master at work in his many trades.

Besides making music, he wrote about it — insightful, accessible books about the lives and music of great composers, including Schubert and Schumann. He was a widely exhibited painter, too, known especially for his portraits.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau retired from opera in 1978. He continued giving song recitals through the end of 1992 and then, on New Year’s Day 1993, announced that he would sing onstage no more.

Of the many tributes he received over the decades, perhaps none was more heartfelt than that of the British music critic John Amis:

“Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it.”

Mr. Amis continued, “Having used a few superlatives and described the program, there is nothing else to do but write ‘finis,’ go home, and thank one’s stars for having had the good luck to be present.”

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Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the distinguished German baritone, has died aged 86. His protean career was surely unique, as he sang and recorded more vocal music than any who came before. In particular, he broached more lieder (German songs) than any of his predecessors of the genre, his recordings running into the hundreds. Many of these songs he recorded several times over: for instance, he made no fewer than eight recordings of Schubert’s Winterreise.

This truly incredible output was the result of an inquiring mind, an insatiable desire to tackle any and every song he could find, and to be a proselytiser for the art of lieder and singing in general, all these underlined by an instinctive wish to achieve perfection in his craft. More than that, he was an inspiration to the vast number of singers who have followed his example in this field, and made the singing of lieder a common experience. He also created an audience for this kind of music-making. Look at the concert and radio listings, look at the myriad discs of songs released in the CD age, and you will hear the benefits of his pioneering effort.

Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin and studied there with the veteran lieder artist Georg Walter, then after the second world war with Hermann Weissenborn, who partnered him at the piano in early recitals. But many of his first successes were in opera in Berlin. He made his stage debut there in 1948, as Posa in Don Carlos at the City Opera, where he would go on to be heard in most of the major baritone roles, Italian and German. From 1949 onwards he was appearing regularly at the Vienna State Opera and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. He also sang at the Bayreuth festival from 1954 to 1956 as the Herald (Lohengrin), Wolfram (Tannhäuser), Kothner (Meistersinger) and Amfortas (Parsifal).

In 1961 he created, magnificently, the ego-mad Mittenhofer in Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers at the Schwetzingen festival and in 1978 the title role in Aribert Reimann’s Lear at Munich, an overwhelming portrayal. His Covent Garden debut came in 1965 when he created an immense impression as the impassioned Mandryka in a new production of Richard Strauss’s Arabella under Georg Solti. He returned later to portray Verdi’s Falstaff, a large-scale but somewhat unidiomatic reading.

Tall, with expressive features, Fischer-Dieskau was a riveting figure on stage and a not inconsiderable actor. Nobody who caught him as Mandryka, Mathis or Wolfram is likely to forget the experience. Among other outstanding roles which he recorded for posterity are Count Almaviva, Don Giovanni, the Flying Dutchman, Telramund in Rudolf Kempe’s classic set of Lohengrin, Busoni’s Faust, Barak in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and both Oliver and the Count in the same composer’s Capriccio.

One of Fischer-Dieskau’s first and most moving portrayals on disc was as Kurwenal in Wilhelm Furtwängler’s legendary 1952 recording of Tristan und Isolde. Another classic recording with the German conductor was of Mahler’s Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. He twice recorded the same composer’s Das Lied von der Erde, first under Paul Kletzki, then with Leonard Bernstein, taking the three movements usually sung by a mezzo-soprano and making them very much his own.

His enormous repertory also included many choral works. Besides recording many of Bach’s cantatas, he was a sympathetic Christ in both that composer’s Passions, an imposing Elijah in Mendelssohn and one of the original soloists in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the baritone contributions written specifically for him. Britten in 1965 composed his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake for Fischer-Dieskau, just one of the many commissions his singing inspired.

Yet it was with his lieder that he achieved his greatest deeds. He recorded all the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Strauss suitable for a male voice. He worked on them first with Gerald Moore, doyen of pure accompanists, and then was partnered by a host of distinguished solo pianists and the conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, each of whom inspired him to refreshingly new insights.

Fischer-Dieskau had a full, firm and resonant baritone, which could be honed down to the most delicate mezza voce. It was used with the utmost care in managing and projecting the text. He could on occasion be too emphatic in his treatment of words and was sometimes accused of overloading climaxes, but these were only the downside of a singer who was totally immersed in everything he undertook. An excellent linguist, he was almost as happy singing in Italian, French and English as in his native tongue, and he spoke English with virtually no accent.

In a career lasting more than 40 years, there was, as the years went by, inevitably some deterioration in his tone, but he compensated for the decline with a new lightness of approach and an even deeper penetration into the meaning of each song, as his 1986 recording of Winterreise with Alfred Brendel reveals. After he had retired from singing in 1992, Fischer-Dieskau took up another career reciting literary texts, often associated with song. He was also willing to give private lessons to carefully chosen singers to whom he imparted his immense experience as an interpreter.

He published a book of memoirs, Nachklang, in 1987, translated into English as Echoes of a Lifetime. It was an unusual autobiography in showing a man who, for all his many achievements, was uncertain of himself. That reflected the impression made when you met him. He was initially shy, but you always felt that behind the quizzical, sly, humorous eye and manner lay a man of philosophical bent, perhaps amazed himself at what his genius had led him to achieve.

He is survived by his fourth wife, the soprano Júlia Várady, whom he married in 1977, and three sons by his first wife, the cellist Irmgard Poppen, who died in 1963.

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‘It is the start of the final episode’ He was the greatest lieder-singer of the 20th century, setting new standards and influencing a whole generation. As Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau turns 80, Martin Kettle talks to the prolific Berliner about his extraordinary career.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau does not attempt to hide his dismay about his approaching birthday. “It is not good to be 80. I did not like being 70, and I like being 80 even less. It is the start of the final episode. I wish I could ignore it.”

It is more than 12 years since the most influential singer of the 20th century stepped quietly out of the limelight and brought the curtain down on his 50-year career. Now, to mark his 80th birthday on May 28, there will be ceremonies and awards; a new pictorial biography by Hans Neunzig; large selections from his enormous recorded legacy are poised for reissue by DG; and the singer himself is giving a steady stream of interviews in the Berlin house where he has lived for more than half a century.

The familiar tall figure comes to the door to greet the photographer and me, shepherding us in out of the rain and offering us a cup of tea. He is the same handsome man he was as a performer but he shakes hands gingerly. Two months ago Fischer-Dieskau fell off a podium in Essen, severely damaging his shoulder, and he is still feeling the effects.

We sit in his drawing room, a long bright room with his grand piano by the garden window and his shelves lined with records and drawings, some of them his own, as he is a keen painter. He is full of wit and authority, yet there is an air of melancholy in his conversation – he feels that a generation has grown up casually unaware of his contribution to the classical music of the post-war era. “The next generation is not so interested in the artists of the past,” he reflects.

To those who grew up with Fischer-Dieskau as a towering icon of the musical world, such neglect seems almost scandalous. At the height of his reputation, from roughly 1950 to 1980, the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau cast more light on the art of singing than anyone either before or since, and certainly in the era of recorded sound. Not only did he make more recordings of art songs than anyone else – many of the most important ones recorded several times – he also recorded most of his many operatic roles too. He set new standards and influenced every singer of his era as well as a number of composers.

The eulogies began early in Fischer-Dieskau’s career and never ceased. “He had only to sing one phrase,” his frequent accompanist Gerald Moore wrote in his memoirs, “before I knew I was in the presence of a master.” Sviatoslav Richter, who accompanied him too, was in no doubt either: Fischer-Dieskau was “the greatest of 20th-century singers”, the Russian pianist wrote in his notebooks. John Steane, most probing and unsentimental of all critics, threw up his hands after listening to Fischer-Dieskau and, quoting Dryden on Chaucer, simply concluded: “Here is God’s plenty.” The writer John Amis concluded that Fischer-Dieskau is “a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it”.

“I am hard to please,” Fischer-Dieskau admits. He thinks “much is being lost about the good ways of making music”, and regrets the decline of “true legato singing” – a charge that critics occasionally made against his own performances. “When you have something to say in music the phrases must be clear – the beginning, the climax, and the ending.”

He has praise as well as criticism for the English tenor Ian Bostridge and he enthuses unreservedly over Bryn Terfel: “He has huge presence and a marvellous voice, real focus and brilliant strength.” It is important to be strict with young singers, he says. “Singing is hard work, it involves great discipline.” Yet for him one of the most important qualities is curiosity. “The repertoire is so enormous. For many years I literally learned a new piece every day.”

Fischer-Dieskau was, is, and will always be a Berliner. He has lived through some of the great city’s best times and most of its worst. This most refined and intelligent of artists began his career in circumstances from hell. In early 1943, aged 17, his first public performance of the greatest of all song-cycles, Schubert’s Winterreise, given in the town hall of the Berlin suburb of Zehlendorf, was interrupted by the RAF.

“We had a terrible bombing of the city that day,” Fischer-Dieskau recalls, “and the whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two-and-a-half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.” I ask him whether he can remember where in the cycle he began again. “It was Rückblick [Backward Glance],” he grins. “So we looked back to the part already completed.”

As a conscript soldier he was captured by the Americans in Italy in 1945 and spent nearly two years as a prisoner-of-war. “I believe it forces you to straighten out your thinking at an earlier age than you would otherwise do,” he says. “You have to survive. You have to stay focused, otherwise you will not live. That was my first thought.”

It was this German experience of suffering and war that partly led Benjamin Britten to invite Fischer-Dieskau to sing in the historic premiere of his War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Britten’s letter – “with great temerity I am asking you whether you would sing the baritone” – tells us something both about the composer and about the grandeur that Fischer-Dieskau had attained in the musical world by then. But Fischer-Dieskau’s memories of the event are mainly about Britten’s nerves.

“I think Ben’s hesitation was partly because this was a work of a character that he had not written before then. He also said to me he considered it to be one of his most important works. I have never seen a composer or conductor more nervous before a performance as Britten was before the War Requiem. We were all moved to tears, everybody by this work. I did not know where to look or where to put my feet.”

Fischer-Dieskau reckons he began singing at the age of two. “I would imitate voices and noises all the time. And I think this gave me great flexibility in the voice. This is essential for the lieder singer, to be able to characterise – though without losing your own distinctive colour of voice.” His mother encouraged her young son, taking him to a recital by the contralto Emmi Leisner when he was just seven. “I was glowing, a kind of fanatic,” he recalls. Leisner told him he would “certainly be a singer”.

By the mid-1960s, Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore had carried out a two-man revolution in the world of German song. Omitting only those songs that were specifically suited to a female interpreter, he recorded the complete songs of Schubert, Brahms and Richard Strauss, most of those by Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Wolf, and large numbers by composers from Bach to Henze. Listening to almost any of these recordings today, none of it ever sounds routine.

Fischer-Dieskau has always had an encyclopaedic knowledge of other singers. “It is remarkable when people say how different I am from earlier singers,” he says, “because I overlapped with singers like Heinrich Schlusnus and Erna Berger and I was not conscious of being different in approach. On the contrary, I tried to be like them, to be as perfect as I thought they were.”

He talks easily and frankly of the great musicians he has known, of Brendel and Beecham, Karajan, Kleiber and Klemperer. His own favourite singer, he says without a moment’s hesitation, was “the young Hans Hotter”. His best partnership was with Gerald Moore, “the perfect accompanist, with such a rhythmic character to his playing of Schubert.” But his greatest influence, Fischer-Dieskau makes clear, was the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. “He once said to me that the most important thing for a performing artist was to build up a community of love for the music with the audience, to create one fellow feeling among so many people who have come from so many different places and feelings. I have lived with that ideal all my life as a performer.”

Those performances have not ended yet. Fischer-Dieskau has an active career as a reciter and narrator in works by composers from Schumann to Schoenberg, and a new CD of his work has just been issued. He continues to conduct, too, providing his shoulder problem heals up.

But he fears that even he is being forgotten, slowly and inexorably. “The person who achieves most can also be forgotten most,” he says, with the air of a man who has long been troubled by that paradoxical thought. But he is not unhappy, he insists. “I was a widower and I had much sorrow in my life, and I was a soldier, which was the worst thing of all. But it is a good thing to have led a life which has had good consequences.”

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P.O.W.who sang Schubert

1925 Born May 28 in Berlin

1943 First public recital, Schubert: Die Winterreise, Berlin

1945 Gives Schubert recitals in POW camp in Italy

1947 First professional engagement, Brahms’ German Requiem, Müllheim in Baden

1948 Opera debut as Marquis of Posa in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Berlin

1949 First recording, Brahms, Four Serious Songs

1951 First London concert, Delius, A Mass of Life, conducted by Thomas Beecham. Also records Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin with Gerald Moore

1952 Records role on Kurwenal in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler

1953 First US tour

1962 Premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Coventry Cathedral

1963 His wife Irmgard dies after giving birth to their third son

1965 Covent Garden debut as Mandryka in Strauss’s Arabella First recital with Sviatoslav Richter

1970 Completes recording of all Schubert lieder with Gerald Moore, who says of him: “This man, Fischer-Dieskau, has taken me deeper into the hearts of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms, than I have ever been before”

1973 First recordings as a conductor, Schubert symphonies 5 and 8

1977 Marries the soprano Julia Varady

1978 Premiere of Aribert Reimann’s Lear

1983 Begins new role as teacher, Berlin

1984 Begins collaboration with Alfred Brendel as accompanist

1992 Final lieder recitals in Berlin and London. Final appearance as singer at Munich Opera gala, as Verdi’s Falstaff

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NPR: by ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS

Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau — often cited as one of the greatest and most influential singers of the 20th century — died near Starnberg, Germany this morning at age 86. His wife, soprano Julia Varady, announced his death from undisclosed causes.

Fischer-Dieskau’s lyricism and sensitivity to the words he was singing made him unmatched among song interpreters. His repertoire was said to include more than 3,000 songs by composers including Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Mahler and Wolf, and he made hundreds of recordings over the course of his 50-year career. When he made his American debut in 1955 (singing Schubert’s Winterreise), the New York Times cheered, “The performance left no doubt that last night’s listeners were in the presence of a singing artist.” In Richard Wigmore’s 2007 biography Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: The Baritone of Our Age, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf hailed her frequent colleague as “a born god who has it all.”

Reached this morning by phone, critic and author Tim Page said, “What makes Fischer-Dieskau such a significant artist, especially when it comes to lieder, is just the way he throws himself completely into the music. You have the sense that he’s examined it from every possible angle and he’s chosen this way to go with it. The shading and the sensitivity with which he works with words, not only their meaning but the way he caresses their phonemes, is quite remarkable.”

Fischer-Dieskau was also widely respected on the opera stage, with roles that ranged from the Count in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro to the title roles of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Paul Hindemith’s Cardillac. After his retirement from the stage in 1992, he continued to be a vigorous presence in master classes.

The baritone was born May 28, 1925 in Berlin. By his own figuring, he tried to start singing somewhere around age 2. His mother supported his fascination by taking him to concerts even when he was barely school-aged. By the time he was a teenager, he was already becoming a force to be reckoned with.

He first sang Winterreise in public at age 17, in 1943. He was singing at the town hall of Zehlendorf, a suburb of Berlin. The performance was interrupted by an RAF bombing. In an interview he gave to The Guardian upon turning 80, the singer recalled, “The whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two-and-a-half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.”

One of his most frequent collaborators, the pianist Gerald Moore, wrote in his memoirs: “He had only sung one phrase before I knew I was in the presence of a master.” (At the time, Moore was 52 years old, while Fischer-Dieskau was just half the pianist’s age.) As time went on, the admiration only increased for this musician’s musician: Fischer-Dieskau partnered with such pianistic legends as Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz, Daniel Barenboim and Alfred Brendel.

The baritone’s very first recording, of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, was made in 1949. Within two years, he was giving his first concert in London and made his first recording with Gerald Moore — the first of no less than three recorded traversals of Schubert’s Die Schoene Muellerin with Moore, along with other recordings of the same cycle with Alfred Brendel and other pianists.

The Second World War defined a large part of the singer’s youth. Conscripted into the German army, he was captured in Italy by the Americans in 1945 and spent almost two years as a POW; while there, he gave recitals of Schubert songs. Once the Nazis were defeated, Fischer-Dieskau returned to Berlin and began singing professionally.

In a gesture suffused with symbolism, it was Fischer-Dieskau whom English composer and conductor Benjamin Britten requested to sing in the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem in 1962 at the shattered and then rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. Britten’s choice of wording speaks volumes about Fischer-Dieskau’s immense reputation among fellow artists: “With great temerity,” Britten wrote in his letter, “I am asking you whether you would sing the baritone.”

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OpernWelt: On the Enjoyment of Challenges

It is not so easy to sum up someone who, over the decades, has devoted himself to music so completely, who is so willing to take risks, so driven by a nearly insatiable curiosity. Attempts to capture this phenomenon in words, to make him comprehensible and transparent, end dangerously often with a label. What hasn’t he been called ? A voice of the century, some people say enthusiastically. Someone who promotes himself through his roles, others complain. He has frequently been awarded the hat of Cantor doctus, while at the same time other listeners confess that they find balm for their souls in his delicate piano. Composers such as Britten, Henze, and Reimann have been inspired by his voice, while some critics object to his machine-like production of Lieder. What other singer of his generation carries such weight that he can provoke anything approaching the acceptance and rejection that Fischer-Dieskau has ? Over the past 50 years, who else has so often astonished, stimulated, and compelled consideration by people interested in music – with new things, with transformations of himself, with ways of looking at things, and discoveries of new works ?In the process, Fischer-Dieskau has never made much of himself as a personality. Whenever he has given interviews or expressed himself in writing, he has focused attention on music, its artistic-historical connections, the possibilities of its interpretative reproduction. In the following conversation, which took place in contemplation of his 70th birthday, the baritone reveals himself not only as an interpretative artist, but also as a person. Fischer-Dieskau on the topic of artistic ambition and family life, on the slavery to work and on his great love. A restless man, whose curiosity and delight in innovation remain valid for the future.

 

Q. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau, as a singer you said farewell to your audience at the end of 1992. Since then, what has occupied the greater part of your life ?
F-D I can’t answer that very easily. There are so many things that occupy a part of my life that sometimes it just makes my head spin. But the thing that will always occupy me the most is music. I have never been able to live without it, and in old age you shouldn’t abandon that which is most important to you, that would surely have fatal consequences. Particularly at around the age of 70 you reach a stage where you have to be very careful. If, at that point, you abandon the work you have been doing, there is a good chance that you will just collapse and drift. Marcel Prawy once said that in old age you have to challenge yourself with more and more difficult and many-sided tasks in order to maintain youthful vigor. I am definitely doing that. In October I will conduct the second volume of Verdi arias with my wife. In November there will be a concert in honor of the Hindemith anniversary. I have an enormous amount of teaching ahead of me. In addition, I am working on a new book and have been blessed with five exhibitions this year, which in itself means a ton of work.
Q. That sounds as if the amount of work you are doing has scarcely diminished since your retirement from the stage. Do you need the stress ?
F-D Actually, I am doing more than I was before. But I don’t regard it as stress, but rather as a game. In fact, the element of play has an important role in my life, and I think that should be the case in the life of every artist. Our life is occupied with playing, whether we play an instrument or a role. And also the construction of a work schedule for each day is a kind of game. A kind of playing with building blocks. Doing this gives me an enormous feeling of enjoyment and pleasure in life.
Q. Can you give an example of this playing with building blocks ?
F-D One has to get through a big pile of mail every day. I don’t pass my letters on to a secretary; rather, I try to take care of all of them myself. That takes time. Then there is the studying of scores, then teaching, then work on new books. If you don’t bring all of that into an exact plan, and then stick to it in a pretty pedantic way, things get difficult. I don’t want to do without any of these activities because they are all important to me. So I have to play this game. How do I get all of that onto a chessboard, so to speak.
Q. That sounds exactly as if you are proving those people right who see Fischer-Dieskau as a thoroughly rational artist who always manages everything cleverly. What is the origin of that image of a heady singer, which has always been attached to you ?
F-D It probably comes from the way I performed, because I always tried to do equal justice to both aspects, language and music. However, that doesn’t necessarily happen in a conscious way. I think it is more like a language, and I don’t think about every word when I talk. Except that with advanced age you unfortunately have to search for words sometimes… (laughs) In any case, the voice cannot be guided by the intellect. If I start consciously directing what is supposed to be happening in my throat, there is a great danger. I always thought that it was important that the sense of a thing as a whole should emerge. Accordingly, I have to have made text and music so much a part of me as if it were, in combination, a completely normal language. Of course it isn’t, because you have to carry around a great weight of knowledge. By knowledge I don’t mean knowledge of the background of the works. That is nice, of course, but in a pinch one can do without it…
Q. Do you seriously mean that you could master works without a knowledge of their background ?
F-D Listen to the first recordings that I made: Schumann’s Op. 24 with Hertha Klust, for example, or the first Beethoven and Schubert recordings. At that time I didn’t know anything about the background of the works. I didn’t begin to occupy myself intensively with background until much later. Back then, I had too much to do just to learn the music. That takes time and energy. With each successive engagement, I had to go from one work to a completely different one every two days. That had to go very fast. Besides that, every year I had two or three new roles and many new songs to learn. In the beginning, you just have to get the music into your head and continually have an enormous store of it ready to go. That’s what I mean by the burden of knowledge that is necessary. It happens the same way with most pianists. In general, they also start thinking very late. First you have to practice, so that the fingers work.
Q. Do you mean that in the beginning you just sang away without much reflection, perhaps out of pure pleasure in your voice and the physical act of singing ?
F-D That’s exactly how it was. You can sense that, too. When I listen to the old recordings, then I know: That was mainly physical pleasure in singing. I can sense the pleasure of doing whatever I wanted with a reservoir of strength and vocal possiblities. One thing astonishes me. In those days I sight-read some songs that we recorded and I had no time at all to think about interpretation and things like that. Nevertheless, my ideas changed very little later on. When I first read the music I thought: It can’t go any way except this way. And later on, it mainly stayed like that. Perhaps later my breathing and phrasing became a little better. But the foundation had already been laid.
Q. Nevertheless, your interpretations of Winterreise, for example, sound very different over the course of the decades, not just in the sound of the voice, but also in the basic conception.
F-D You know, that is like in a marriage or a long partnership. At first you love someone passionately on a physical level. And then gradually you discover the person’s other characteristics, are amazed by them or happily immerse yourself in these things. For example, I can definitely tell you this: In the beginning I was mainly carried along by everything that surrounded me. For example, the accompanist. I followed exactly what Hertha Klust played. I followed exactly what Böhm conducted when we did our first Don Giovanni. I swam along in a great stream of knowledge and ability that was already there.Of course, that changed a little over time. I came together with younger musicians and tried to pass on my own experiences. In the process, I always tried to maintain my curiosity and spontaneity. Every evening I was really eager to see what would happen. That is a matter of an attitude of expectation, nothing deliberate. Some critics have written that I wanted to teach through singing. Not at all. I was learning ! I went to school every time I gave a song recital.
Q. In what way ?
F-D I wanted to know what was possible. Of myself, as well. But of course you can only take that as far as the work will allow. I have always regarded myself as a person who had to accomplish what was required. When I went out onto the stage, that meant for me: Now I have to slip into the form that I have to transmit; now I have to become synchronous with the work. The work is the most important thing. The interpreter should completely disappear behind it. You shouldn’t be able to detect him at all.
Q. Does that apply to you, too ?
F-D Absolutely. Unfortunately, it happens all too seldom that you really disappear behind a work, that you are no longer audible as an interpreter. You have to bring yourself in as a medium. You can’t change that. But when it happens that an astral projection of the work can be experienced, that is a stroke of good fortune. But unfortunately you don’t have that kind of luck very often in life. I don’t know how else to describe it except as a kind of synchronicity of all the elements that are decisive for a performance. That includes the technical competence of the performers, but that is not the decisive thing. In Busoni’s time there were pianists who could not play Brahms, for instance, in a technically correct manner. In spite of that, their interpretation set standards for generations.
Q. Even among your admirers there are people who say that you communicated your opinion of a work along with your interpretation.
F-D Giving a commentary on the work would mean that in the course of the recital I would stand outside myself and observe myself the whole time and say: Now he is doing that, but you have to do it differently, etc. But that must never be the case. If it ever happened to me, then I was desperately unhappy about it. Or I could have climbed the walls because that has nothing to do with what is required. The requirements are originality, naivite, and spontaneity. Only then can something emerge that will really capture people. A didactic performance that addresses itself critically can never really make an impact. If two thousand people in a room become one – I didn’t experience that very often in my life, but a few times it did happen – that is never the result of intellect or tricks that one employs. Anyone who is not moved himself cannot move others with what he is doing.
Q. Mustn’t it be difficult for a thinking person to suddenly forget all aspects of his preparation, all the artistic intentions that he has dragged around for weeks ?
F-D That is a question of concentration. I think of it as in Zen: all these bowshots that aim for a tiny point. When you go out onto the stage, all the preparation has to be forced into your subconscious. For the moment of the performance, we all have to return to a new level of unconsciousness. All the reflection and all the doubts have to be laid aside before you start.
Q. From the beginning [of your career], was it easy for you to expose your innermost self as radically as is required by Lieder singing ?
F-D Not at all. I am by nature a shy person and often a bit reserved. For that reason I have sometimes been labeled as uncollegial. Because I didn’t want to sit around in the canteen, too. In the beginning, it was not easy for me to reveal myself in front of people. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have done it at all if I wasn’t compelled to do it. And very soon I found great satisfaction in it. When I look at the old film clips that are still around I say to myself: That was still a little reserved, constrained. Only gradually, with the help of the [opera] stage, through the comic roles, came a loosening up.
Q. Which directors were of particular assistance in that process ?
F-D With Carl Ebert various lights finally came on for me. For instance, the communication of passions, of feelings, to the audience. When a person stands on the stage with a serious face and portrays something comic, when he laughs and is actually weeping – Ebert was particularly good at bringing that out because he was himself an experienced actor and had played all the great roles under Jessner.
Q. Why didn’t you ever work with Felsenstein ?
F-D In the first year, even before I was engaged by the Städtische Oper Berlin, I sang for Felsenstein. Then in his office he said to me: “You have to come to me. Otherwise you will never learn how to really sing Don Giovanni“. That remark made me a little hesitant. Then I decided in favor of the offer from Tietjen because he allowed me plenty of time for concert singing as a matter of course. Felsenstein didn’t consider that in the least. Later I heard some complaints from singers at the Komische Oper because music didn’t play the leading role there. Klemperer also left for purely musical reasons.
Q. What is your opinion of the development of the so-called Regietheater ?
F-D I think that in opera music has to be brought a little more into the foreground. It’s my impression that the whole rehearsal/preparation process is not carried out with a view to the music. Directors – but also conductors – don’t pay enough attention to working out positions on the stage that are important for the sound. Often it is left more or less arbitrarily to the director where someone will stand, whether he will stand still or move. But these matters are of decisive importance for the sound.
Q. Would you be interested in directing, as Brigitte Fassbänder and Hans Hotter have done ?
F-D I don’t think I have any particular talent for it. To do it, a total view of the stage is necessary, a very special ability to arrange things. You have to have ideas about how to organize many people. I wouldn’t be afraid to do it in works where primarily one person is the central focus. But I would only operate within a relatively small range of interpretation that would still leave room for the imagination of the viewer. It can’t be the case that a single aspect, be it of an intellectual or historical kind, dominates the entire production and thereby cuts off the imagination of the viewer. In such productions you are no longer permitted to develop your own ideas, but rather are forced to follow the ideas of the director. I find that sort of thing to be unfortunate.
Q. Then you don’t think that problems that are of concern to us today should have a place in opera productions ?
F-D Of course they have. But the contemporary aspect should not be an intrusion. Productions that put little emphasis on the direction have – in opera – sometimes given me more pleasure, because then I can create my own production and think a little about the things that lie behind the characters. You can also experiment with something new within a relatively limited range of interpretation. For instance, Rennert produced Cosi fan tutte in a way that no one before him had done. Very musical and also very strict. He did magnificent justice to the constellations that emerge in this somewhat geometrically-constructed work. That was harmonious in a positive sense, a pleasant shock. And many directors today miss the opportunity to produce a pleasant shock.
Q. And were there pleasant shocks in Rennert’s Figaro and Gianni Schicchi ?
F-D In our first Figaro, I had to survive a very different kind of shock. During the whole production, Rennert had a difficult time imagining me as the Count. At that time, I wasn’t exactly slender and I had a childish face. Maybe I also didn’t portray for him something that is essential to this Count: the comic side. The Count is someone who is continually tricked, surprised, the victim of bad luck, someone who always arrives either too early or too late and always experiences exactly the thing that he doesn’t want to experience. But Rennert didn’t say anything during the rehearsals, and I didn’t say anything, so that a certain misunderstanding arose. After the dress rehearsal he came to me and said: “Don’t we want to appraoch this differently ?”. I was singing the role for the first time in Salzburg and was correspondingly horrified. Then we discussed the whole role again completely and I tried to recreate what we discussed on the stage. I don’t think he ever forgot that because afterwards we became real friends.
Q. Is it true that you never appeared at the Met in New York.
F-D Yes, and I’m quite happy about that. Both the new house and the old one were too big. You can’t do opera when already from the 10th row you can only see little dolls on the stage. In such an enormous space you can’t put much faith in the personal presence of the individual singer, which is reflected in facial expressions, among other things.Another thing: When in the mid-1950’s I was supposed to be engaged at the Met, I sang for Rudolf Bing late at night after a Ballo in Maschera in Berlin. That was certainly not ideal. Then he said: “Why don’t we wait a few more years for the Met”. Nothing ever came of it because in those days a guest engagement at the Met involved a three or four month stay in New York. In that event I would have had to turn down all obligations in Europe. Instead, I preferred to remain faithful to my two houses in Berlin and Munich, in which I felt more or less at home.
Q. In fact, you made very few guest appearances in opera.
F-D And why should I have done ? Then it only goes the way it went for me as Falstaff at Covent Garden. Geraint Evans had been my predecessor in the Zeffirelli production and all the way through the spotlight was directed at my stomach and my face was mostly in the shadows. That couldn’t be changed during the whole performance. My wife could tell other stories that would fill an entire evening.
Q. Were there roles that you turned down? I mean serious offers, not Karajan’s offer to sing Ramfis in Aida.
F-D In the case of nearly all the great roles I portrayed in Berlin I said no at first: Wozzeck, Mathis der Maler, even Falstaff.
Q. Why didn’t Wozzeck interest you ?
F-D I knew that Leo Schützendorf, the first Wozzeck, was a bass. And I am still of the opinion that this part should be sung by a Sachs-type voice. By a voice with a strong lower range because Wozzeck has to sing in his middle and lower range over powerful masses of orchestration. It was much the same in the case of Busoni’s Doktor Faust. I can still see Richard Kraus and Wolf Völker sitting in my conservatory and working on me for hours to persuade me that I should take on this role. I said: “I stand there on the stage as Faust for the whole evening and have to constantly bellow from mezzo forte to fortissimo in an incredible Heldenbariton voice and I am not one”.
Q. But weren’t you attracted by Faust as a divided artist figure ? I always had the impression that the Faust figure, also in Schumann’s and Spohr’s settings, was particularly close to you.
F-D Before this conversation with the two gentlemen I had never occupied myself with Busoni’s treatment of the material. That didn’t come until afterwards, during the course of the rehearsals. I can still see our good Hertha Klust sitting at the piano and coaching me in the role. She lit a cigarette, crossed one leg over the other, and said: “What kind of dilettantism is this, it can’t be this way”. So we worked our way through all the underbrush and I said to myself, for 1925 this is an enormously modern reading of the material. The difficulty of the artist to be able to bring anything lasting into the world, the theme of this version of Faust, is still a problem for us today.
Q. As far as recreative art is concerned, you should scarcely have a problem. Never has a singer left behind so much of lasting value in the form of recordings and books.
F-D Oh dear, do you know what ? Sometime in the future it will be determined whether these things have a value or not. If yes, so much the better. If not ? Well, in that case I was playing with potatoes.
Q. What role does the recording play in your view of music ?
F-D Recording itself was always a colossal means of control for me, and I was glad to be able to devote a certain part of the year exclusively to it. Beyond that, of course I didn’t have the time to go often to concerts or opera performances that interested me. Instead, by means of recordings, I could take in a lot that otherwise would not have been available to me.
Q. And what is your opinion of Celibidache’s dogmatism, which sees in the recording medium the alienation of the musical moment ?
F-D Of course, Celibidache is right about that. But that can’t keep me from seeing recordings as something positive. Just because it is a matter of capturing a particular moment, also in the studio, the constitution and abilities of the interpreter are reproduced. And precisely that is of historiographical value. I have never gone so far as to see that as a danger.
Q. How did the relationship among recording, choice of works, and marketing strategy present itself to you ?
F-D In most instances I did what the companies offered to me, as long as it was of artistic interest. A complete recording of Schubert’s songs seemed to me at first to be unmarketable, not to mention impracticable. The company convinced me to do it. Of course, I was incredibly enriched artistically through doing it.
Q. You produced an almost encyclopedic repertoire on recordings. Does a singer really have to try out everything, or shouldn’t he restrict himself somewhat ?
F-D Of course you have to restrict yourself. I restricted myself in my live performances and only ever sang a part of my repertoire.
Q. There are also Fischer-Dieskau recordings that didn’t sell well. For example, the Mozart songs with Barenboim. Can you explain that ?
F-D I can explain it quite easily. Most of Mozart’s songs were written for a high voice, for an extremely high voice even, and they are difficult to transpose in a credible manner. Besides that, many of the texts are difficult for a man to sing. And Mozart’s songs are not his strong point; there are other genres in which he simply wrote more significant things. Our recording was also made under great technical difficulties. We had to go into a big studio in London and spend ages before we could establish a halfway decent microphone position in that space.
Q. Have you ever really been surprised when you listened to one of your old recordings ?
F-D Yes, often. I have detected errors of vocal technique that I would never let pass in one of my pupils. On the other hand, I never really realized that I had mastered some things as well early on as I did. The early recordings demonstrate an elasticity and the ability to take command of certain vocal moments that, at a later stage, were only possible by means of a very powerfully directed control. Back then, I accepted many things as natural and a matter of course that later weren’t there of their own accord. But that is a very natural progression.
Q. Were there moments of crisis or danger in your career ?
F-D I never had to experience any dangers vocally. That started with the voice change: The voice changed easily into an adult voice without my even having noticed it much. I just sang away with this instrument, quite naturally, without doing much to protect it. What was critical was a problem of abcesses in the sinuses that went on for years in the early 1950’s. I was constantly in pain because, as a result of incorrect treatment – medicine wasn’t as highly developed in those days as it is now – I had a pinched nerve that made itself felt with every high or loud note. I had to have it operated on several times. But I was carried through that by youth and strength and the conviction: I have received something as a gift and I have to use it.That was the highest and most important thing. I couldn’t put it aside in favor of anything else, even family or house. That wasn’t possible. I think it happens with every artist. Menuhin described it very well in his autobiography.
Q. Can’t the family be a refuge and a source of strength ?
F-D It wasn’t that for me to any degree. My foundation, my source of strength, was music. And probably music was the great love of my life. I have to admit that. Something like that is a matter of fate. I don’t think it has much to do with me as a person. I had to obey that which was given to me from the beginning.
Q. That doesn’t exactly make life easy for a family.
F-D You know, I brought children into the world relatively early, probably too early, and I am thankful that three such genuine, well grounded people resulted – without my having done much to help. I was rarely at home, often inaccessible. And when I was at home I had to work. I was subservient to this work. I was its slave. This servitude is just as pleasant as it is unavoidable. You can’t escape it.
Q. Not even if you really want to ?
F-D Ones tries again and again to scale back, to make adjustments, to fulfill one’s obligations as a father. But in the final analysis I don’t think it can really be done. You have to make the sacrifice, and unfortunately others are a part of this sacrifice as well. It is a bitter lesson, which everyone in my position will experience. I think the same thing has happened to everyone who has seriously devoted himself to music. In spite of that, I was able to experience a great deal through my children, and it was very important for me. I hope that they also got a little in return. That could be true.
Q. In your own youth, you reached out very early to extremely serious works, works that go to the extreme emotionally. Weren’t Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge the first songs you ever sang ?
F-D Yes, they were right there when, at the age of 16, I started to make music in a deliberate fashion, just because I loved them so much. Of course, that has to do with the generations of clergymen in my father’s family. These biblical themes were a garden, so to speak, in which I moved around easily. The texts helped me to find a way into the music. Thus, texts that dealt with last things were relatively easily accessible to me. And then my first teacher, Georg A. Walter, did barely anything with me except to sing through Bach cantatas. And they all revolve around the overcoming of the fear of death and occupy themselves with finding an attitude toward the end of this life.
Q. Do such texts and themes correspond to your disposition ?
F-D My disposition is completely different from that which is expressed in the Vier ernste Gesänge, or in Winterreise, or in all these somber, melancholy songs full of longing and resignation. I am very cheerful, and I think that that is a certain prerequisite to being an artist: a good measure of cheerfulness and humor.
Q. Then why have you nevertheless sung Winterreise so often that people practically identify you with this work ?
F-D I don’t sing it in order to portray myself; instead I am a musician, who sings in order to present a work. If I love Winterreise then I know why I do. It was clear to me from the beginning that this was a matter of a supreme work that could not be more artistic in its expressivity, its exclusion of non-essentials, in the avoidance of mere tone painting, in the variety of ways to express pain. But I as a private person do not have to be the man suffering in the winter in order to be able to sing it. In a recital with a mixed program I have to portray 20 characters, one after the other. Actually, in that case, every song has to be sung by a different person.
Q. What factors change your view of a work that you have performed again and again over decades ?
F-D That is a very complex matter. First of all, I would say the heartbeat. At different times of life one experiences quite different speeds of one’s heartbeat, which quite automatically results in a different feeling about tempo. Then there is one’s experience with the works. The more often one occupies oneself with them, the more things one hears in them and would like to make audible. That in itself changes the performance. And since we were just speaking about Winterreise, I don’t subscribe to the theory that one must have reached a mature age before being able to interpret such a work. When he was still quite young, Schubert had an incredibly intense, almost irrestibily penetrating, preoccupation with death. And that wasn’t just a fashion of the time, but rather was in accordance with his nature.
Q. You write in your “History of Song” that there is a great closeness between Schubert and Verdi.
F-D That is above all a question of emphasis, of phrasing, also of Verdi’s construction of phrases. Perhaps he saw it in Schubert. Or maybe it is simply the case that a certain approach is automatically required when text and music are to agree with one another. Verdi and Schubert both mastered it, and for that reason their construction of melody is very similar. How often have I had the feeling with a Schubert song: This is a precursor of Verdi ! “Vorüber, ach vorüber, geh’ wilder Knochenmann!” Couldn’t that also be Verdi ?
Q. Why do so few singers apply this in a practical sense ?
F-D Because people rarely proceed from first principles. I have accustomed myself, following the great example of Goethe, to see things in their connections: How did something come into being and where does it lead ? What link does it constitute within a development ? If you think that way, such precursors or relationships show up quite automatically.
Q. Did you have models among the Italian baritones ?
F-D I find the liberties that Battistini allowed himself in cadenzas to be extremely interesting; in fact, the liberties he takes in his dealing with printed music in general. If people are going to busy themselves with original editions and original instruments all the time, it would be desirable if Verdi singers would think of such things. I think that a careful study of Battistini’s approach would be of great benefit. Unfortunately, I never did it myself. To be sure, I always liked his recordings and found his voice to be beautiful, also his way of phrasing. But I never reached the point of doing a detailed study.
Q. Among the Italian singers you have often mentioned is Beniamino Gigli.
F-D Even as a child I ran around with his recordings, lent them back and forth with friends, and we delighted in listening to them. As a boy, I imitated Gigli and other singers. I really wanted to feel my way into other voices, wanted to understand: “What is really happening there when he colors in this or that way ?”. Certainly some of that found its way unconsciously into my later professional singing. With Gigli, it was mainly his delicate mezza voce sound that fascinated me. A kind of piano-singing that is scarcely to be found in other Italian tenors of the same voice type. Later I had the satisfaction of learning that he approved of my way of singing piano. He let me know this via a messenger from Rome. That was an enormous encouragement for me as a beginner.
Q. As early as 1932, Gigli appeared in the Berlin Sport-Palast before 12,000 listeners, and he had a noteworthy film career in later life. Perhaps he is one of the first singers where you can see how a voice was fully exploited by and for the culture-industry.
F-D Certainly Gigli was one of the first who introduced mass culture – but you can’t really call it culture – this mass enthusiasm for tenors that we are experiencing today to the nth degree. Today the posters of certain gentlemen smile out at you for a whole year before the thing finally takes place in the Waldbühne or the Olympiahalle. I have never been at such a production, but other people have reported to me that the effect is thoroughly entertaining and even very attractive. But I think that there is a large measure of trickery there when a tenor sings the most demanding aria literature for a whole evening at half-voice directly into a microphone and handles it easily because amplifiers are acrrying his voice to 40,000 listeners. What would this poor gentleman do if he had to stand before an orchestra and sing there in the old, normal fashion ?
Q. You have stood up again and again for the music of the 20th century and suggested to many composers that they should write works for a baritone. Aside from the interest in something new and unusual, which of these works have become dear to you ?
F-D I would say that Aribert Reimann’s works have become dear to me, and in fact I sang them again and again as long as it was possible. He is one of a very few composers who has particular vocal possibilities in mind when he writes and follows them precisely. He always knows exactly who he is writing for and what he wants to accomplish. That is something very gratifying for the singer. I am convinced that Mozart had a very accurate conception of the singers who were to sing his major roles. Unfortunately, that has been lost somewhat. Often people sit at their desk and compose in a theoretical way, and then come the nasty surprises at the first rehearsals.
Q. Isn’t there also a danger for the successors in a role if it was tailored to a particular voice in an extreme way ?
F-D Not necessarily. It can be extremely productive for a singer to have to adapt himself to the demands of a different voice. Speaking generally, I have always believed that a singer ought to train himself to be a kind of parrot. He should be able to imitate every phoneme that other people produce or every noise that he encounters. This motivation to imitate should be very strong. Only then can one make his own certain sounds that are not originally specific to his own instrument.
Q. You yourself have been imitated by a whole generation of baritones. Next to you, Gérard Souzay played the most important role among Lieder singers of your generation. Did you regard him as a rival ?
F-D I didn’t regard him as a rival – and apparently he didn’t either. A short time ago we were talking about it on the telephone and he said that we were more soul brothers than rivals. I wish I could have learned to sing as well in French as he did in German. There are superb Schubert recordings by him and also lovely baroque cantatas. I have always admired his musicality, his impulsiveness, his unity with the audience of the moment. That was just enormously spontaneous. And he’s like that now when he gives public master classes. I am impressed by the way he does it.
Q. Have you often attended concerts by your colleagues ?
F-D Before I didn’t often have the time, unfortunately. Now I do it from time to time with much pleasure. Of course, every singer is a little hesitant to go to a colleague’s concert because it can easily irritate the singer’s voice. We are particularly sensitive to our voice because it is located in our body and because psyche and matter meet there in a form that does not occur in the case of any other recreative musician. Under certain circumstances that can be a source of disturbance. You don’t want to imitate what others are doing and you don’t want to be disturbed in your own ideas, which you are just in the process of forming. It’s quite different in the case of the conductor: He should visit the rehearsals of other conductors as often as possible to see what kind of gestures exist by which to make oneself comprehensible to the orchestra. Also in the case of pianists a visible [hand] technique allows the observer to learn how the sounds are made. In that way you can benefit a great deal from watching.
Q. From which conductors did you learn the most ?
F-D I always respected Rudolf Kempe because of the incredible flexibility of his gestures. He was enormously imaginative in inventing figures with the baton or with his left hand and thus was able to achieve really new results in the course of a concert. Unfortunately, not very many conductors can do that. Beecham was certainly one of them, and Szell could also make an orchestra sound totally different on three successive evenings and take them for a walk in any direction he pleased. It was similar with Kempe. His natural, music-loving manner inspired orchestras enormously.
Q. You once named Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Szell and Leon Fleischer as one of your favorite recordings.
F-D I think that the qualities of both are completely displayed in this recording. In the case of Leon Fleischer, from the first time I stood on a podium with him I had the feeling: this is a very great artist. It was at the Library of Congress in Washington, where several artists performed various numbers. He played the Wanderer-Fantasie and I had to perform a group of Schubert’s songs with Gerald Moore. And I thought, this is an American pianist who doesn’t play according to American norms, but rather has a quasi-European potential behind him that is otherwise only at the disposal of the old gentlemen, the grand old men among American pianists. And then later I learned that he had studied with Artur Schnabel, and this influence was very much in evidence. Fleischer was forced by a tragic fate to play only with the left hand. But what he can do with just the left hand – for instance in the Ravel concerto – is overwhelming.I have never known of anyone who could illuminate a score like Szell. There was no one instrumental voice that was not illuminated in a solo way and yet at the same time embedded in the totality of the orchestra. That sounds like a completely obvious requirement. But how many conductors are really capable of accomplishing it ? People complained of Szell that he was too analytical and somewhat dry in his way of performing. I can’t agree with that. I find that an incredible liveliness and an alert intellect speak out of everything that he did. And that always produces a finished interpretation.
Q. To stay with conductors for a moment, how did your work with Carlos Kleiber in the Tristan recording go ?
F-D That recording was the last experience in my life with someone who really knew how to rehearse. We worked through the role of Kurwenal alone, only a coach was present. And while it was going on I had the feeling: Every second of this rehearsal, everything that is being said here, is important; I can really use this. However, the next day at the second piano rehearsal he didn’t correct me any more, which made me uneasy again. Because if from one day to the next I had put into practice everything he wanted, that could be a bad thing. And then during the recording he paid very little attention to the soloists, unfortunately.
Q. You just mentioned Artur Schnabel. What significance does his type of music-making have for you ?
F-D Schnabel played the slow movements incomparably – especially in the Beethoven and also Schubert sonatas. They are not only graceful but also wonderfully sung, breathed in a way that I have never heard with anyone else. In the faster passages Schnabel tended to cut phrases short in a rather impatient way, not to play them out to the end but to jump ahead to the next one. I always thought this was fascinating, and I am of the opinion that it could be thoroughly appropriate to Beethoven’s image.
Q. What is your opinion of the upheavals and new perspectives that the historical performance movement has engendered, also in relationship to Viennese classicism ?
F-D The perspectives must often be regarded as plagiarism, because Harnoncourt was one of the first to create them. Of course, today these things have pretty much moved into the background for him in favor of a very individualistic style. He has moved further and further forward chronologically and has now arrived at Bruckner and Verdi. And there he has naturally moved away somewhat from the rather purist basic conception that he started with, which may have restricted the possiblities of interpretation a little.
Q. I want to jump backwards again. What do you, as someone who worked for decades with Karl Richter, think of the Bach that is being produced today in the studios: vibratoless playing, quick tempi…
F-D I don’t understand one thing, which is that today every interpretation that proceeds from a certain naturalness, that therefore doesn’t constantly worry about how something might have sounded at an earlier time, but which quite naturally follows its own ideas, is put down as late Romantic. As late Romantic I would most likely think of the Klemperer version of the St. Matthew Passion, which produces a massive sound and works with an extremely large orchestra. That is not my ideal. I think that Bach’s music, if one reads it, already contains a great many prerequisites of interpretation. You can see from the music what you should do. Everything that works against that, which goes beyond it to historicize or return to the style of the Bach period, seems very questionable to me.
Q. Don’t you think that the historical performance movement has brought quite new dimensions of the so-called old music to light?
F-D In some cases, absolutely. But I don’t always share the positive opinion of the music critics. I am reminded in this regard of Furtwaengler’s remark, who said: “And then there comes a young conductor who conducts Beethoven’s Eroica twice as fast as it has been played up to now and insists that this is the only correct tempo”. I felt that way when Sviatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich played the Cello Sonata op. 102 in the edition with Beethoven’s metronomical indications. Actually, most people can’t play it that way at all as a matter of technique. Those two could, but despite that I suffered as I listened to it. I find it to be a distortion when everything whizzes by like that.
Q. Don’t the rapid tempi also remove much of the patina from the music ?
F-D In my opinion, music doesn’t have any patina when it is listened to with musical ears, no matter in what version it is performed. The work is the important thing, and everything else – how it is interpreted, etc. – is basically unimportant. The notes in themselves are already so powerful; that is completely sufficient. If someone more or less has the ears to receive and transform that which is offered as interpretation, which is always imperfect and incomplete, then he can appreciate the work, then he will understand it in its structures and be able to follow its lines.
Q. The term understanding of the work leads us to another sphere that we haven’t yet mentioned. Since 1983, you have been teaching at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin. Stendahl once said that caution was the death of music. What role does caution play when you work with young singers ?
F-D You have to be cautious in several respects. Young people who are facing obstacles – one obstacle after another, in fact – shouldn’t be confronted with these problems in an inconsiderate way. Otherwise there will be an increase in anxiety and hindrances to their development. That which must be said has to be cloaked in words that will not cause any emotional distress.
Q. When she criticizes pupils severely, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf always says that it may be cruel, but that things go the quickest that way…
F-D (laughs) Well, she’s not wrong about that.
Q. In your book about the history of vocal music you write that every singer must practice the experiencing of text and music emotionally. How do you communicate that to young people ?
F-D In most cases it revolves around issues of background, of the environment of the works. That means that you have to awake in every pupil the curiosity to familiarize himself with the composer as a person and with the time in which the work was created. That is of basic importance for interpretation. In the moment of performance it must have already seeped into the unconscious. I think that you should arouse in the pupil a willingness to question, not just accept commands like a tin soldier. You should treat him as an adversary and hear agreement or disagreement from him. That makes the lesson livelier.
Q. In your singing career, how did you deal with criticism ? Did criticism in the press ever give you anything ?
F-D No. Really not. I have thought about it with no result. There were a couple of instances when someone made a big deal of showing what I had done wrong, and in those cases it was possible to contradict the critic with a simple reference to the printed music. In such cases I just sent the critic the page of music with no comment.All of us who stand on the stage suffer from the delusion that we have to plunge ourselves into what is printed about the concert in the newspaper two days later. But you are in trouble if you don’t learn early to immediately suppress your annoyance with what you have read.
Q. Do you read reviews of your performances ?
F-D I have always read them. And I don’t believe anyone who says that he doesn’t read reviews, no matter how rigidly and firmly he insists on it. Everyone wants to know what opinion of him prevails and what the people who weren’t there are thinking.
Q. What role does painting play for you ? Is it a kind of artistic substitute for singing ?
F-D No. I have been painting seriously since 1960, and today I am not really doing any more than I have always done. At most, the inquiries are becoming more frequent. And I don’t think that before painting was a supplement to singing for me. It directs itself to completely different sense organs, and I think that musical ideas can only be reproduced metaphorically with lines and colors. It’s true that I sometimes try to represent subjects that I have sung, but that is not the important thing. The important thing is to be creative myself: that I can really shape something myself and don’t have to put myself as interpreter in the position of subservience to a thing, as I have been accustomed to do. From the first stroke a dialog arises with the thing that I am bringing to the canvas. This dialog can be very exciting, but also very painful. It isn’t a holiday pasttime but rather a genuine discussion.
Q. Recently you have appeared repeatedly as a conductor. What ambitions do you have in this direction ?
F-D Well, I don’t want to build a career as a conductor, for God’s sake. I also didn’t want to do that when I started at the beginning of the 1970’s. At that time I was a stand-in: Klemperer was seriously ill and I was asked by a recording company to take over the recording. Up to now I have often remained a stand-in as a conductor. And I have even enjoyed that here and there. I thought to myself: it is quite an athletic activity to adapt oneself to orchestral conceptions and conditions. Orchestras all have their own habits and ideas about sound. It’s true that they alter their sound a little under every hand, but basically the character of the orchestra remains constant. But in regard to ambitions: in the future I will only conduct when a particular task recommends itself. That’s the way it is now in November, for instance, when I will conduct a concert with a small ensemble in honor of the Hindemith anniversary because I think that Hindemith is underrepresented in concert programs.
Q. What repertoire interests you as a conductor ?
F-D I have always been interested in all music and have limited myself very little. There is nothing in the entire history of music that is so obscure that it would be of no interest to me whatever. Even in the case of minor composers who imitated others, there are a great many things that are interesting. Whatever I am working on at the moment is my favorite. In any case, that’s the way it always was when I sang. Actually, what I have always enjoyed is the challenge that must be met. The harder and more complicated it presents itself, the better.
Q. Does that mean that you are really at your best under severe pressure to perform ?
F-D I don’t really know about that. I don’t find the execution itself to be so important. And not the end result either. The experience that one gets through the challenges, the personal experience in the face of a musical work that I am not yet familiar with: That is the most important thing for me.

This interview was published in Opernwelt Jahrbuch 1995 (4-29).

interviewer: Stephan Mösch translator: Celia Sgroi

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Ian Bostridge:

 

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a titanic figure and a mirror of his age. Hearing of his death today at the age of 86 it was the singing I thought of, of course, and the little of it I managed to hear live. Recitals on the Southbank in the 80s – a Meeresstille (Becalmed at Sea) of Schubert, so whispered that every member of the audience leant imperceptibly forward to catch the thread of sound he so miraculously spun. The most terrifying Erlkönig I have ever heard or, indeed, seen. A War Requiem that called to mind the circumstances of its premiere in Coventry when he struggled with the weight of his memories at the end of the piece, barely able to move.

He lived the 20th century in all its bleakness – a brother murdered by the Nazis, his first Winterreise performed as an American prisoner of war in Italy. His singing of the whole body of German song – from Mozart to Henze via his touchstone, Schubert – showed the world a new Germany, as significant in its way as the Wirtschaftswunder. He was profiled several times in Time magazine (“by all odds the world’s finest lieder singer”) and was one of the first German artists to sing in Israel. Personal memories abound, and his affectionate warmth will linger with me, he was never the grandee. But so too will the recordings I listened to again and again as a teenager, and still listen to today.

He was a great opera singer of course – a brilliant but atypical Iago, a seminal Wozzeck, never routine, ever surprising. He inspired a wealth of new music – Auden’s monstrous creation, Mittenhofer, in Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers, Reimann’s King Lear.

But now I have in my mind’s ear Goethe’s magical – but almost untranslatable – poem Grenzen der Menschheit, set to music by Hugo Wolf, and incomparably brought to life in all its grandeur and mysterious humility by Fischer-Dieskau and his companion on so many journeys, the pianist Gerald Moore:

Ein kleiner Ring ? Begränzt unser Leben ? Und viele Geschlechter? Reihen sich dauernd? An ihres Daseins? Unendliche Kette.

(A small ring? Is the boundary of our life,? And many generations? Form a constant procession? In the endless chain of being.)

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By Ivan Hewett, Music Critic

To describe Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as a giant among post-war singers is actually an understatement. For many he was, and is, the singer of the period, and a model of what a singer of art-song should be.

He had a voice with the mysterious quality of being both instantly recognisable and a touchstone of perfection. ‘Fischer-Dieskau is a miracle and that’s all there is to be said about it’ said the writer John Amis. Of course Fischer-Dieskau had his critics. Roland Barthes famously scorned his smoothly honed sound, saying it lacked the ‘grain’ of a really memorable voice.

And yet Fischer-Dieskau was anything but bland. It was encountering Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings of Hugo Wolf’s songs that first made me aware of their colossal intensity and layers of irony. Beauty of tone may have been what the audience heard, but it was the always the meaning of he song that Fischer-Dieskau’s sights were fixed on.

The other thing that made Fischer-Dieskau unique was his sheer productivity. Artists who are admired for their ‘perfection’ are usually careful to keep their rarity value, like the pianist Michelangeli or the conductor Carlos Kleiber. Fischer-Dieskau poured out his talent unstintingly. He simply sang more operatic roles and had a greater repertoire of songs than any other baritone – around 3000 by some estimates.

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Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Imperfect Greatness

  • The obituaries for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died last week at the age of 86, praised him without stint—and, for the most part, without qualification. The English tenor Ian Bostridge, who paid tribute to him in the Guardian, spoke for just about everyone when he called the German baritone “a titanic figure and a mirror of his age.” You’d never guess from reading these heartfelt paeans that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was also one of the most controversial artists of his age, or any other. For every vocal connoisseur who praised him to the skies, another dismissed his singing as “mannered” and “croony,” and it was not until after he retired in 1993 that the carping ceased and he came to be regarded as above criticism.

 

Needless to say, no one supposes that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was anything other than an immensely gifted and consequential musician. Though he was best known as a recitalist, he also appeared frequently in opera, and he is believed to have made more recordings than any other classical performer, including a near-complete set of Schubert’s 600 songs. He sang in the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” and performed with Leonard Bernstein, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Vladimir Horowitz, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Murray Perahia, Sviatoslav Richter, George Szell and Bruno Walter, to name only a few of the giants of 20th-century music who were delighted to work with him. In his spare time, such as it was, he wrote a half-dozen books and was a talented painter and a pretty good conductor.

Why, then, did so many listeners have such strong reservations about the man whom Time magazine dubbed “the world’s finest lieder singer” in 1967? Because Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s style of singing was so individual, even idiosyncratic, that it left some people cold. Unlike the generation of recitalists that preceded him, he sang like an actor, not a storyteller. In his hands, each song became a first-person monologue, a confession of supreme intensity. Individual phrases, sometimes individual syllables, were subtly inflected so as to bring out their meaning. The effect was almost kaleidoscopic in its richness of dramatic nuance, and a listener who was used to the “simpler” style of an older singer like, say, Lotte Lehmann or Richard Tauber might easily find it oversophisticated, even—yes—mannered.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s most ardent advocates were usually more than willing to admit to certain of his other flaws. Though he sang in a half-dozen languages, he never sounded comfortable in anything other than German, just as he was never fully at ease in any music other than the Austro-German repertoire. An essentially serious personality, he was all but humorless and self-confident to the point of arrogance, two stereotypically Germanic traits that occasionally crept into his performances. (Britten, who admired his artistry extravagantly, nonetheless referred to him in private as “the school bully.”)

All true—yet whenever you heard him sing Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” Robert Schumann’s “Mondnacht” or Hugo Wolf’s “Anakreons Grab,” to name just three of the dozens of art songs with which he was intimately identified, it was impossible, at least for the moment, to imagine anything more beautiful. And because he recorded these and countless other songs to exquisite effect, it will be possible for generations of music lovers yet unborn to know exactly how beautifully he sang them.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau didn’t much care for America, and so performed here infrequently. As a result, the only time I saw him onstage was at a series of three 1988 recitals at Carnegie Hall that were his last public appearances in this country. He sang songs by Gustav Mahler, Schumann and Wolf, and I confess to recalling nothing specific about the performances themselves. What I do remember—indelibly—was his physical appearance. He seemed at least 8 feet tall, and he strode about the stage with the energy of a very young man, all but thrusting himself at the audience. It was as if he had cast off his inhibitions and plunged into the music like a madman leaping headlong into a volcano.

By then I had been listening attentively to Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings for a decade and a half, and had gone from being a he-can-do-no-wrong fan to a judicious, somewhat skeptical admirer. Seeing him in concert, though, reminded me of the singularly vivid expressivity that first led me to fall in love with his singing, and ever since then I’ve unhesitatingly ranked him among the greatest of the greats. Perfect? By no means. But perfection has a way of becoming boring. Whatever else he was or wasn’t, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was always interesting. He never gave a performance that didn’t make you think—even when it was wrong.

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings” every other Friday. He is the author of “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.

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Genuflecting To A Master: Thomas Hampson On Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

By ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS

German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died earlier this month at age 86, was a paragon of excellence for generations of singers and fans. After his passing, we called American baritone Thomas Hampson for his memories of Fischer-Dieskau, whom he has called “a Singer for the ages, an Artist for eternity.”

Renowned himself for his impassioned championing of the art song, Hampson declares, “You simply have to recognize him as one of the greatest vocal artists of all time, period, full-stop. If Fischer-Dieskau is the Encyclopedia Britannica of song repertoire, I would like to be a couple of well-written chapters inside of it.”

“Even before I met him,” Hampson continues, “I considered Fischer-Dieskau a kind of mentor. I’ve always been fascinated with the way he looks at music, and the way he sings. I’ve never heard anything that the man sang or recorded that was not interesting, or did not illuminate some reason why the piece was written in the first place. And I think it’s going to take several years, and maybe even generations, to actually digest what this single human being did over a 50-year career and an 80-some year-old life.”

The depth of what Fischer-Dieskau accomplished is matched by its abundance. “If you have his discography,” Hampson says, “you’re looking at 300-plus pages of single-typed pages of what he recorded, either for radio or commercially. For example, he made four or five different commercial recordings of Die Schoene Magalone of Brahms. I mean, when was the last time you even heard the Schoene Magalone? It’s just breathtaking what the man did and wanted to do, and the passion with which he did it.”

But as Hampson’s own career developed, the two men began working together, and the titan Hampson had first known through cherished recordings became a more direct source of inspiration. “I don’t want to misrepresent that I was a close friend, or that we were in constant contact,” Hampson says, “but I am extremely grateful that in my professional life that I did have this relationship and had the kind of support behind the scenes from this giant. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a time when I haven’t had Fischer-Dieskau as a mentor or as a thought process in how I study, along with some of the other great musicians like Harnoncourt or Bernstein or Barenboim whom I’ve worked with.”

“I’ll never forget the first time I sang with him in 1985,” Hampson says. “As I was genuflecting on my knees and and saying what a great honor it was, as one does when you’re around a great master — I was so intimidated and so thrilled to be in his presence — he took my hand, and shook it, and said, ‘You’re very talented, and I wish you the best.’ And then he almost let my hand go and then pulled it back, looked me smack in the eyes, and he said, ‘Pay attention. It goes by so fast.’ I’ll never forget that.”

The last time Hampson and Fischer-Dieskau met in person was about two years ago at the older singer’s home in Munich. “We had a wonderful long conversation about repertoire and life and singing,” Hampson recalls. “He’d been sitting listening to the radio broadcast from Bayreuth the day before. He listened incessantly to music. He kept up on performances and people and knew names, probably more than one could believe. And he said to me, ‘You know, Thomas, at the end of the day, you have to believe in what you’re doing, and you have to sing what it is you know you have to sing.'”

“I found that very powerful,” Hampson says. “I was very, very happy to hear him say that. It was a kind of a moment that told me that he was totally connected with what he had represented and what he had done.”

For those just starting to explore the artistry of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hampson recommends several recordings to begin the journey.