A Fischer-Dieskau Anthology

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CDs 1 & 2: SCHUBERT: Das Fischermädchen. Du bist die Ruh’. Ständchen. Ich auf der Erd’. Die Winde sausen am Tannehang. Der Einsame. Im Abendrot. Abschied. Aufenthalt. Erlkönig. Seligkeit. Heidenröslein. Hark, Hark the Lark. Fischerweise. Die Forelle. Der Strom. Litanei auf des Fest Aller Seelen. SCHUMANN: Die Lotosblume. Du bist wie eine blume. WOLF: Der Tambour. Der Feuerreiter. Starchenbotschaft. STRAUSS: Traum durch die Dämmerunng. Ständchen. Morgen. LOEWE: Erlkönig. BEETHOVEN: An die ferne Geliebte. HAYDN: Eine sehr gewöhnliche. Der Gleichsinn. Die zu späte Ankunft der Mutter. Gegenliebe. Geistliches Lied/Gebet zu Gott. Das Kaiserlied / Gerald Moore, pno / SCHUMANN: Liederkreis. BRAHMS: 4 Serious Songs / Hertha Klust, pno / TELEMANN: Die Einsamkeit. Das Glücke kommt. Das Frauenzimmer. Seltenes Glück. Die vergessene Phillis. Falschheit. Lob des Weins / Edith Picht-Axenfeld, hpd; Irmgard Poppen, cel

CDs 3 & 4: DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor: Cruda, funesta smania (w/Theodor Schlott, bs). GLUCK: Orfeo ed Euridice: Che faro, senza Euridice. MOZART: Die Zauberflöte: Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja; Papagena! Papageno! (w/Lisa Otto, sop). VERDI: Falstaff: Act II (w/Josef Metternich, bar; Cornelis van Dijk, ten). VERDI: Don Carlo*: É lui desso…Dio che nell’alma infondere (w/Boris Greverus, ten); O signor, di Fiandra arriva; Quest’ è la paceche voi date (w/Josef Greindl, bs) / RIAS Symphonie-Orch.; Berlin; *Berlin State Opera Orch.; Ferenc Fricsay, cond. / LORTZING: Zar und Zimmermann: Einst spielt’ ich mit Szepter. Der Wildschütz: Wie freundlich strahlt die holde. WAGNER: Tannhäuser: O du mein Abendstern.* PUCCINI: La Bohème: O Mimi tu più non torni (w/Rudolf Schock, ten)+ / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; *Philharmonia Orch.; +Berlin Symphony Orch; Wilhelm Schüchter, cond / WAGNER: Die Meistersinger: Was Euch zum Leide Richt’ und Schnur (w/Wolfgang Windgassen, ten) / Bayreuth Festival Orch.; André Cluytens, cond / TCHAIKOVSKY: Eugen Onegin: Sie schrieben mir – Wenn für die Ehe (w/Sena Jurinac, sop) / Vienna State Opera Chorus & Orch.; Lovro bon Matačic, cond/ HANDEL: Giulio Cesare: Va tacito e nacosto / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Karl Böhm, cond / HANDEL: Berenice: Si, tra i cappi / Munich Bach Orch.; Karl Richter, cond / HAYDN: La vera costanza: So che una bestia sei. MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro: Hai già vinta…Vedrò mentr’io sospiro / Wiener Haydn-Orch.; Reinhard Peters, cond / MOZART: Don Giovanni: Finch’an dal vino; Là ci darem la mano (w/Irmgard Seefried, sop); Metà di voi qua vadano. ROSSINI: Guglielmo Tell: Resta immobile. GOUNOD: Faust: Avant de quitter / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Ferenc Fricsay, cond / MOZART: Così fan Tutte: La mano a me date (w/Ernst Häfliger, ten; Hermann Prey, bar; Erika Köth, sop) / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Eugen Jochum, cond / VERDI: Otello: Rodrigo, beviam! (w/Piero di Palma, Florindo Andreolli, ten) / New Philharmonia Orch.; Sir John Barbirolli, cond / STRAUSS: Die Frau ohne Schatten: Mir anvertraut, daß ich sie hege (w/Inge Borkh, sop). Arabella: Und di wirst mein Gebeiter sein (w/Lisa della Casa, sop) / Bavarian State Orch.; Joseph Keilberth, cond / HINDEMITH: Mathis der Maler / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Leopold Ludwig, cond / VERDI: Il Trovatore: Il balen del suo sorriso. Rigoletto: Cortigianni, vil razza dannata! I Vespri Siciliani: Si, m’abboriva…In braccio alla dovizie. Un ballo in Maschera: Eri tu che m’acchiavi. Falstaff: Eh! paggio! / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Alberto Erede, cond

CD 5: SCHÜTZ: Symphoniae Sacrae II: Singet dem Herren ein neues lied. TUNDER: Da mihi, Domine. BRUHNS: Erstanden ist der heilige Christ. J.C. BACH: Ach, dass ich wassers gnug hätte in meinem haupte / Else Göhrum-Jennewein, Bertha Krimm, vln; Hermann Hirschfelder, Marianne Klemm-Ott, Walter Henschel, vla; Hermann Klaiss, Werner Taube, cel; Lisedore Prätorius, hpd / J.S. BACH: Cantata 157: Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste. Cantata 73: Ach, unser wille…Herr, so du willt. Der freide sei mit dir, BWV 158 / Michael Schwalbé, vln; Aurèle Nicolet, fl; Lothar Koch, ob; Irmgard Poppen, cel; Edith Picht-Axenfeld, hpd; St. Hedwig’s Cathedral Choir; Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Karl Förster, cond / J.S. BACH: St. Matthew Passion: Mache dich, mein Herze rein / Munich Bach Orch.; Karl Richter, cond / PEPPING: O haupt voll blut und wunden / Berlin Radio Symphony Orch.; Artur Rother, cond

CDs 6 & 7: MAHLER: Songs of a Wayfarer / Philharmonia Orch.; Wilhelm Furtwängler, cond / SCHUMANN: Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust” / Vienna Philharmonic Orch.; Wolfgang Sawallisch, cond / MOZART: Warnung: Männer suchen stets zu naschen. Ich mochte wohl der Kaiser sein. Cosi dunque tradisci – Aspri rimorsi atroci. / Vienna Haydn Orch.,; Reinhard Peters, cond / TELEMANN: Funeral Music for a Dead Canary / Helmut Heller, vln; Heinz Kirchner, vla; Lothar Koch, ob; Edith Picht-Axenfeld, hpd / HANDEL: Cuopre tal volta in Cielo /  HANDEL: Apollo und Daphne / Agnes Giebel, sop; Thomas Brandis, vln; Ottomar Borwitzky, cel; Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Günther Weissenborn, cond / HANDEL: Dalla Guerra amorosa. J.S. BACH: Amore traditore, BWV 203. Cantata 212, “Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet” / Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Karl Förster, cond / Profil PH20074

This massive set, with a playing time of nine hours spread over seven CDs, covers the period 1948 to 1969 with the bulk of it coming from the period 1948-1959, thus it gives us a chance to hear Fischer-Dieskau as an evolving artist stemming from his first opera production (the Don Carlo in German directed by Fricsay) to the time of his commercial stereo recording of Italian opera arias under Alberto Erede. It’s a bit mind-boggling and, for me, is pretty much the last word on Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretive abilities with the exceptions of his mono album of Strauss songs with Gerald Moore, his 1960 recording of Das Lied von der Erde under Paul Kletzki, and his interpretation of Britten’s War Requiem. Otherwise, you pretty much get the full monty here, including several recordings issued on CD for the first time and quite a few rarities from live performances over German radio.

Fischer-Dieskau was clearly one of the finest singers and interpreters of his time; he had a wide range of tastes and interests, including one in which he did not indulge himself vocally, and that was jazz. He grew up as one of Germany’s “swing kids,” adored American jazz and once while on a tour of the U.S. he refused to fly back home from New York until he had the chance to see one of his idols, Ella Fitzgerald. Yet to my knowledge he never sang a note of jazz and certainly never recorded any.

He was also one of those very rare singers whose voice was naturally placed and who didn’t need much training but the rough condition of his voice in the two clips from his 1948 Don Carlo suggest to me that he went to someone, possibly Georg A. Walter who is often cited as his only voice teacher, to tidy things up a bit before he started recording in 1949. Whatever the actual case, he managed to keep his voice in fairly good shape over the next quarter-century, only running into vocal problems again around the mid-1970s when he was 50 years old, and from then on his voice went in and out of focus depending on the day he sang and how he was feeling physically at that moment. He managed to keep going, with his vocal state changing, into the mid-1980s before it all collapsed on him, and by that time he was 60 and had already left more records than you could easily fit into one room in your house (at least in their original 78 and LP formats).

As you can see, this set is divided up into four sections: two CDs of lieder, two of opera excerpts, one of religious stuff, and two of “concert music.” Although these are mostly recordings of later vintage and not archaic 78s, engineer Holger Siedler must once again receive the highest praise for his restorations. Even on the early 1950s Schubert recordings, Fischer-Dieskau’s voice is so beautifully reproduced that you’d almost swear that he was in the room with you…and he has done the almost impossible by making two excerpts from the baritone’s debut, the 1948 Don Carlo broadcast, sound listenable for the first time. (I would even encourage him to restore the whole thing, but it’s not really worth it…the music is so horribly chopped up that they even omit the Friar in the Act I duet scene.) Of the lieder discs, I missed a few of my “old friends” from his early mono EMI recitals such as a few Schubert songs (Der Jüngling und der Quelle, Der Tod und das Mädchen, Der Doppelgänger and Auf dem Wasser zu singen) and much more of the Strauss lieder, but at least they included his classic early accounts of Morgen, Traum durch die Dämmerung and the Ständchen, which are unsurpassed in his entire catalogue.

From a purely technical standpoint, Fischer-Dieskau was an almost purely instinctive singer, though the booklet notes reiterate that he did study for at least a year with famed tenor Georg A. Walter beginning at age 16. With his natural voice placement, he just opened up his mouth, started singing, and whatever interpretive details came into his head. he was able to impart to the music. Yet many German critics (and some musicians) didn’t like this approach; they considered it too “fussy,” the same way many Germans considered Artur Schnabel’s piano playing to be too fussy. And even some listeners who could accept this approach in lieder, which after all are intimate little poems and stories set to a normally delicate piano accompaniment, absolutely hated his singing in opera, where they wanted less nuance and more belt-it-out sound. Personally, I liked Fischer-Dieskau in opera, particularly as Posa in Don Carlo, Wolfram in Tannhäuser and Kurwenal in Tristan, and as the protagonist in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, while admitting that there were just certain roles he didn’t “inhabit” well. These were usually the villains like Iago in Otello, though surprisingly he sang a splendid Don Pizarro in Fidelio, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the latter role he easily brought out the seductive side of the character but never could “get” the dark, evil, lecherous side as John Brownlee, Cesare Siepi, Eberhard Wächter, Mario Petri, Ingvar Wixell, William Shimell and Bryn Terfel did so well. Listening to his Falstaff excerpts, he also had some difficulty bringing out any real humor in the character, though he at least tried. (Similarly, the warmth and humor of Hans Sachs was also beyond his capabilities, not just interpretively but vocally…with his high, light voice, the music lacked the proper weight much of the time.)

But to return to our regularly scheduled review, listening to these early lieder recordings is pretty much a treat from start to finish. His Erlkönig isn’t on the same level as the perfect interpretation by Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, but it’s at least as good as those of Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Alexander Kipnis. which were quite excellent. One of the few songs that I felt was rushed too much was Schubert’s Heidenröslein; six seconds longer would have given us a superb reading at a proper but relaxed tempo. To counter this, however, Hark, Hark the Lark is absolutely perfect; this is exactly the tempo you need to give the music its proper swagger and bird-like “chirpiness.” (And in all these recordings, Siedler managed to capture the original recording studio ambience that even EMI releases didn’t have. He is a genius of sound engineering.)

As good as F-D’s An die ferne Geliebte is, I didn’t think he got as deep into the lyrics as Jon Vickers did—for me, his performance of this song cycle is perfection—but he does a splendid job on the Wolf lieder and has a ball with the little-heard Haydn songs. I don’t know if you can really refer to the Telemann songs as “lieder”— they technically fit more into the “concert music” repertoire, since the music is not as word-specific as most German lied—but they’re interesting to hear and feature Fischer-Dieskau’s first wife, Irmgard Poppen, on the cello (she tragically died in 1963 during childbirth) as well as the excellent German harpsichordist Edith Picht-Axenfeld. Plus, he knocks of an excellent trill in Das Glücke kömmt selten and some neat trills in Ein Stand, der ohn’ Gefahr ist. Some of his portamento effects and accenting of the rhythm probably isn’t authentic style, but who cares when he brings out so much in the words and music??

The operatic excerpts open with a real rarity, “Cruda, funesta smania” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted at a wonderfully brisk clip by Ferenc Fricsay. (I wonder if this was a complete recording and, if so, who the Lucia was?) Foscher-Dieskau’s Papageno was a classic; the complete recording was only marred by Josef Greindl’s very wobbly Sarastro and Rita Streich’s generic, non-scary Queen of the Night. (You HAVE to sound menacing in “Der holle Rache”!) The Meistersinger excerpt heard here is from a live performance, and in it Fischer-Dieskau sings Fritz Kothner, not Hans Sachs (Windgassen sings Walther). Likewise, the Falstaff excerpt has him singing Ford—Josef Metternich sings the title role and some Dutch tenor named Cornelis van Dijk sings Bardolph, but it’s an extraordinarily lively performance. Had it been in Italian, I would have liked to hear the whole recording. Another oddity is the Onegin-Tatiana scene from Eugen Onegin with Sena Jurinac, likewise the “O Mimi tu più non torni” duet from La Bohème with Rudolf Schock in surprisingly good voice, the tone bright, focused, and not throaty.

As mentioned earlier, Holder Siedler did a fantastic job getting surprisingly decent sound out of the recording of Fischer-Dieskau’s debut as Posa in Don Carlo, but omigod is this a chopped-up rendition of the score. In all honesty, Fricay, who was a gold-plated, first-class musician, should have been ashamed of himself for putting on a performance this messed up. Boris Greverus, our Carlo, has a very dark tenor voice that actually sounds more baritonal than Fischer-Dieskau’s, and the tone is unlovely, but he manages pretty well.

I could have lived without most of the religious music—I didn’t care for much of it strictly as music, and the religious themes repulse me—but Fischer-Dieskau was apparently deeply religious himself and put his heart into it. For better or worse, I thought he sang the Schütz piece much too loudly, and the accompanying strings sounded harsh and grating. undoubtedly the fault of the original recording. But if you think the Schütz is bad music, wait until you hear the drippy piece by one Franz Tunder—and the Nick Bruhns piece is even worse. With all the excellent recordings we have of him singing J.S. Bach, some of it with Karl Richter conducting, why even include this third-rate junk? Thank goodness that we at least get some good music from J.C. and J.S. Bach to listen to. Aside from the Bachs, the only great music on this CD is the final piece by one Ernst Pepping (1901-1981) which is extremely interesting, well-written, and just modern enough to hold one’s interest without sounding too dissonant. And one thing the Pepping piece reveals is that, in his younger years, when Dietrich took certain high notes they still had a high baritone “sound” but more of a tenor vocal placement—undoubtedly the effect of Walter’s teaching.

CD 6 starts with a classic, Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer conducted by Furtwängler. Like most conductors of his time, Furtwängler hated the Mahler Symphonies but he liked these songs, thus when they came out on LP the flip side of the album consisted of seven Brahms songs with Hertha Klust as the pianist. The conducting is a little slow by out standards today, but Furtwängler was an excellent conductor and thus moves them pretty well while bringing out a wealth of color from the orchestra. In fact, the remastering is so good that you hear all kinds of orchestral details here that you never heard on the LP. The scenes from Schumann’s Faust are excellently sung but conducted with a little too much legato by Wolfgang Sawallisch.

The Mozart concert arias from Warnung with orchestra from 1969 are all excellent music; by this time, we can hear that although Fischer-Dieskau’s upper register was still intact, his lower range had become fuller and richer with age, although this was to change by the mid-1970s. He also sings some excellent turns and trills in “Un bacio di mano.” I had never heard Telemann’s Funeral Music for a Dead Canary before, but it’s a surprisingly lively piece with great humor in the music and, although Fischer-Dieskau never quite captures the humor, he does sing in a sprightly manner. Lots of trills in the recitative “Was soll ich mehr zu deinem”…apparently, in Germany in those days, mourning a canary meant that you had to have your trills in order! Surprisingly, in the 1960 recording of the Handel cantata with his wife on cello, Dietrich’s voice sounds surprisingly darker than usual. I might not even have recognized him in a blindfold test.

The last CD starts with a rarity, Handel’s dramatic cantata Apollo e Dafne in its first-ever appearance on CD. This is a 1966 recording with soprano Agnes Giebel and members of the Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Günther Weissenborn. The odd thing is, I mostly remember Giebel from her recording on Vox; I didn’t know she had recorded for a major label. She had a nice voice, very pretty if rather inexpressive, but Fischer-Dieskau makes up for her deficiencies. A note to all of you HIP fanatics out there: this is the way this music is supposed to sound: full-blooded and dramatic, not like some wussy crap played and sung by MIDIs. Dalla Guerra Amorosa is a solo cantata, also full o’ trills.

J.S. Bach’s cantata Amore Traditore is possibly the closest he ever came to writing a then-conventional opera scene. In it, a lover bitterly complains, “Treacherous love, you will deceive me no more!…I want to find out if I can cure my soul of this fatal wound, and if I can live with your arrow. No more will hope be a façade for pain, and may the joy in my heart be worth more than your jesting about my constancy.” But the second Bach cantata, which ends the set, is titled “We Have a New Governor.” This is one of his more humorous pieces, the lyrics being:

We have a new governor
in our chamberlain.
He gives us beer that goes to your head–
That’s the simple truth!
But the parson is always cross…
Musicians, get ready quickly!
Mieke’s smock is already shaking,
The giddy little thing.

Bass: Come on, Mieke, give me a kiss!
Soprano: As if that’s all you want!
I know what you’re like, you lazy good-for-nothing bum!
You always want something more;
The new master has a very sharp look.

Bass: Ah, our master does not scold!
He knows as well as we do, and maybe even better,
how enjoyable is a little bit of fun.

Aria, Soprano:
Ah, but it’s a little too enjoyable
when a couple gets really cozy
Oh, there’s a buzzing in the guts
as if you had fleas and bugs
And a crazy swarm of wasps
were annoyed at each other!

Bass, Recitative:
The master is good, but the tax collector
Comes straight out of hell!
Quick as lightning he can slap a new tax on us,
the very moment we’ve just gotten out of hot water!

Aria, Bass:
Ah, Mr. Tax Collector, don’t be too hard
on us poor peasants!
Leave us our skin at least;
Eat up the cabbage
Like caterpillars, to the bare stalk
That should be enough for you!

How about that, boys and girls? Old Bach had a jolly side! Who would have thought it?

So except for several really awful religious pieces on CD 5, this is really a great set and an excellent cross-section of Fischer-Dieskau’s abilities, lacking only the Britten War Requiem as a final bookend. The bottom line, however, would be whether or not you, personally, need this set. If you are a lifelong, rabid Fischer-Dieskau collector, the answer is obviously no unless you see enough items here that you don’t have but want, but for the rest of us, who collected him to a point but not avariciously, the answer is yes, because it showcases him in so many different kinds of music, some of the recordings being of quite unusual music, that it’s worth having the whole thing together in one package…plus, you can’t beat the remastering job. At $35 for the entire set (the rate on Amazon.de), you’re talking about $5 per CD, and it’s definitely worth the investment despite the lack of texts and translations for the rarer pieces.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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