My favorite musician died today. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great German baritone, was ten days short of his eighty-seventh birthday.
Fischer-Dieskau was probably the greatest singer of the twentieth century. He was certainly the greatest singer of Lieder the world has ever known. Seldom is any one person so important and influential that he becomes universally acknowledged as the best in his field. Who is the best pitcher ever? The best film director? The best painter? The best guitarist? Many people will argue about those in any number of ways. But if you ask anyone anywhere who’s the best interpreter of Schubert, for example, Fischer-Dieskau will invariably be the answer. You might ask, “what’s the best recording of Winterreise?” The answer is, one of Fischer-Dieskau’s. Indeed, the second- and third-best recordings may also be Fischer-Dieskau’s. He recorded the cycle at least a half dozen times over a career of some forty years.
Indeed, an unparalleled body of recorded works may be Fischer-Dieskau’s greatest professional legacy. He is perhaps the single most recorded singer of all time. He sang thousands of songs, and an enormous number of roles in oratorios and operas, in German, French, Italian, English, Russian, Hungarian, Spanish, and on and on. My personal collection contains more Fischer-Dieskau recordings than I can count (hundreds of discs, at least), and yet I have barely scratched the surface.
My first exposure to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau came in the form of his recording of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe with pianist Alfred Brendel. To this day, it remains among my favorite compact discs. [Note: in a future post, I will review several different recordings of Dichterliebe, including several sung by Fischer-Dieskau.] In the process of acquiring recordings of vocal repertoire, it became inevitable that I would find a great deal of Fischer-Dieskau in my collection, since he was so versatile and prolific. After a while I had grown so fond of his voice and style, I began actively seeking out his recordings. Some are easy to find, others presented challenges. A years-long quest to obtain a deluxe twenty-one-disc set of material new to compact disc was successfully concluded a couple years ago. Likewise, his recording of Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler was nearly impossible to find until last year. My collecting continues, and probably always will.
[UPDATE: The PBS Newshour had a nice feature on Fischer-Dieskau last night. You can watch the video below.]
Though no short remembrance on this or any other webpage could do justice to a career as important as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s, I would be remiss if I did not post a few short clips of the singer’s miraculous voice. These selections are not intended to be broadly representative of anything; they are merely recordings I like and have ready access to at the moment. The first is an early recording of “Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend” from Beethoven’s song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte:
Fischer-Dieskau recorded the major song cycles of Schubert several times over. Here is “Der Atlas” from a 1962 performance of Schwanengesang:
Fischer-Dieskau owned Winterreise. Early versions from the LP era with pianists Jörg Demus and Gerald Moore are considered classics. But even in the mid-1980s, Fischer-Dieskau’s was still beautiful, as you’ll hear in this performance of “Der Lindenbaum”:
Finally, among my favorite recordings is a 1968 Des Knaben Wunderhorn conducted by George Szell. From the moment I first heard it, I loved how Fischer-Dieskau sings “Wir hat dies Liedlein erdacht?”:
It is not possible for me to post here clips from all my treasured Fischer-Dieskau recordings. Instead, as time goes on I will post reviews of these discs and sets individually. It cannot be overstated how important an artist Fischer-Dieskau was, and still is, to me.
Years ago, I wrote to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Berlin, at an address supplied to me by Monika Wolf. I did not really expect a reply. I wanted only to tell the master how much I appreciated his work. A few weeks later I opened my mail box to find a small envelope, on the back of which was written, “Fischer-Dieskau”. Inside was an autographed photo. Looking at the envelope even today, I am still struck by the idea that this great musician—a man who, a hundred years from now, will be spoken of with reverence—put pen to paper and wrote down my name.
Farewell, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. And thank you.