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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 21 MAY 2012 — The memories, the pleasures, the discussions that took place around the name of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of the great singer-musician-communicators of the second half of the 20th century. Has anyone left as large a legacy of recordings as he? I was an admirer from the first time I heard him on a recording of Schubert’s Winterreise in the late 1950s, and was increasingly subjugated as the breadth of his repertoire continually expanded. In the 1960s, New Yorkers were able to enjoy a biennial Fischer-Dieskau festival when in a 3-week span he gave three lieder recitals, appearances with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, occasionally with the long-defunct American Opera Society (a memorable Doktor Faustus [Busoni] under Jascha Horenstein and with the under-appreciated George Shirley).

Staged opera performances were reserved for Europe, and I regret never having seen him as Mandryka or Barak. Italian opera also played a large role in his stage life, in German in the 1950s and later in Italian, not to universal acclaim for those who wanted a plangent Italianate sound, but his Rigoletto under Rafael Kubelik, with Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi, remains a classic recording. The singer did not neglect his contemporaries, for his interpretation of Aribert Reimann’s Lear was a touchstone of his repertory. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was another work in which his contribution alongside that of Peter Pears remains unequalled.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, circa 1970 (Getty)

Fischer-Dieskau was an accomplished painter and also writer, with fascinating books about Schubert’s lieder, Schumann, Nietzsche and Wagner. But it is above all his devotion to the song literature that remains paramount. In his earliest recordings we are struck not only by the sheer beauty of the voice, but also by the ability to read so deeply into the notes that we are instantaneously absorbed into the composer’s cosmos. In later years, some might have reproached the singer for over-emphasis as the vocal means were no longer in pristine state, but the rewards remained unparalleled.

I remember ordering the original two volumes (21 lps, if I remember correctly) of Schubert lieder from England and settling down over a long period as the familiar alternated with the unknown, always fascinating. And who else left us such extensive traversals of the worlds of Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and even Liszt, always finding the right tone for each song. Nor should we forget Gerald Moore, the singer’s frequent partner, a legend in his own right.

And who else would have had the courage and authority to record a 5-lp set of lieder from 1850 to 1950 (now available on 3 CDs). Fischer-Dieskau had only two rivals: Hermann Prey and Gérard Souzay. Prey, for all the beauty of tone, never plumbed the depths as did his contemporary, while Souzay managed to be more convincing in German than Fischer-Dieskau in French. All three were consummate recitalists and those of us fortunate to be around in their heyday may count themselves among the blessed.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for over thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

Headline Photo: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, 1999

Related Culturekiosque Archives

OperaNet: 101 Best CD Recordings: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Wagner, Wolf)

OperaNet: 101 Best CD Recordings: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Schubert) 

OperaNet: 101 Best CD Recordings: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Brahms, Britten, Busoni) 

OperaNet: 101 Best CD Recordings: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Liszt)

OperaNet: 101 Best CD Recordings: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Mahler, Mendelssohn) 

OperaNet: 101 Best CD Recordings: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Verdi) 

101 Best Classical Music CDs: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Wagner)

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