Fischer-Dieskau Performs Lively Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Der Dämon; Kammermusik Nos. 1 & 2; Hérodiade / Roman Henschel, pianist; Gisela Zoch-Westphal, narrator (Hérodiade only); Ensemble VARIANTI; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, conductor / Hänssler Classic HC16014 (live: 1995)

The late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was more than just an outstanding lieder singer and an occasionally great operatic artist; he was also a phenomenally gifted conductor, certainly the best “singer-conductor” I’ve ever heard. His performances were characterized by a strict attention to the score, clarity of texture, liveliness of tempi and (of course) a singing quality that permeated everything he led. Yet unlike Placido Domingo, a mediocre-to-poor conductor who never seems to turn down an opportunity to lead an orchestra (particularly in opera performances), Fischer-Dieskau was remarkably stingy in his podium excursions. He made but three commercial recordings as a conductor: the Brahms Symphony No. 4, Schubert Symphonies Nos. 5 and 8, and Berlioz’ Harold in Italy with Josef Suk as the viola soloist. All three were spectacular, among the best performances of those works ever recorded, and they received glowing reviews, and yet he gave up conducting by 1976. After his retirement as a singer, however, he did conduct orchestral accompaniments to his wife, soprano Julia Varady, one album each of Verdi and Strauss arias. There are reports of an album he made of rarely-heard orchestral works by Hugo Wolf for EMI, which I’ve never heard or seen, and he is said to have performed Schubert’s Lazarus as well as Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, neither of which made it to CD.

This two-CD set from Hänssler Classic adds to his skimpy conducting discography. Taken from a 1995 concert with Ensemble VARIANTI, this was probably (my copy of the recording did not come with liner notes) a 100th birthday tribute to composer Paul Hindemith, who had died in 1963. Fischer-Dieskau had already recorded, as a baritone, a pace-setting performance of Hindemith’s great opera Mathis der Maler, and here he gives us lively and meticulously detailed readings of some of the composer’s most attractive music. There are two ballet scores here, the early (1923) Der Dämon and the 1944 Hérodiade which he composed for Martha Graham. The latter needs some explanation, since the narration used here (and nowadays in most recordings of the music) was not intended by Hindemith or Graham to be part of the performance. Checking online, it apparently came into being when Robert Craft recorded the work for Columbia in 1958. He wanted Vera Zorina to read Stéphane Mallarmé’s prose poem against the backdrop of the music, which he felt was very effective. Hindemith was eventually convinced to give his permission, but relunctantly; it is not recorded whether or not the composer liked the finished result. But the recording sold very well and set a precedent which Fischer-Dieskau follows here, although presenting the narration in German rather than the original French.

From first note to last, these are performances that bristle with excitement. I listened to Der Dämon as conducted by Gerd Albrecht for comparison, and I didn’t hear the same kind of sharply-etched detail or enthusiasm in his performance that I heard in Fischer-Dieskau’s. I also listened to the Craft recording of Hérodiade, and found some interesting differences in his approach. For one, Craft places the piano accompaniment much more forward in balance than Fischer-Dieskau did, but this might just be the difference between a studio recording and a live performance. As usual for him, Craft conducts with a very lean orchestral sound and very pointed rhythms. Fischer-Dieskau conducts in a somewhat more lyrical fashion, not glossing over the rhythmic elements of the music but not making them the focus of his reading. I was not altogether pleased with Zoch-Westphal’s narrating, however; to me, she seemed to be a bit too loud and hammy in her presentation, but again, this might be because she was projecting into an auditorium in a live performance. She certainly narrates with passion and feeling!

Fischer-Dieskau also does a splendid job with the two Kammermusik suites, which he (oddly) performed in reverse sequence. Of course, the basic problem with this issue is that it is spread across two CDs because the full performance runs just 11 minutes over the capacity of a single disc, and Hänssler is not discounting the price for two CDs. To me, this is a problem. Perhaps they should have filled out the second CD with either the Brahms Fourth or the Harold in Italy; I, for one, would have been glad to have either one digitally restored and released. Even so, this is a valuable and fascinating album well worth getting as a memento of a great singer’s great conducting.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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