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CD Review

Franz Schubert

  • Winterreise 1
  • Die Schöne Müllerin 2
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone 1,2
1 Alfred Brendel, piano
2 András Schiff, piano
Arthaus 107523 2DVDs Full Screen LPCM Stereo
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Arthaus has recently released a two-DVD set devoted to the late German baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, performing the two best known song cycles by Schubert, Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin – the former with Alfred Brendel, the latter with András Schiff. Although arguably slightly past his peak in the recording of the latter, Fischer-Dieskau was at the height of his career when the Winterreise was recorded in January 1979 for the Sender Freies Berlin; the two had in fact only performed the cycle together since 1979.

Fischer-Dieskau has, of course, landmark recordings on CD of both cycles with Gerald Moore (EMI Great Artists Of The Century 562787-2) and Jörg Demus (Deutsche Grammophon Originals 447421-2) as well as Brendel. One key advantage of the DVD format, of course, is that we can watch the singer's body and facial language and expressions as they support – though never intrude on – the emotion, progress, climacterics and many underlying moods of the songs. In the case of neither DVD is the recital simply recorded as document. Shots of scores, the rooms, briefly the audience and a variety of distance to and between singer and pianist are used to give refreshing yet a totally undistracting sense of occasion. There are exceptions – such as when a too slow fade during "Pause" [tr.13] in Die Schöne Müllerin, for example, superimposes Fischer-Dieskau, ghost-like, on the piano as though in a vignette hovering above it. No attempt is made, though, to overplay the visual impact of the occasions. At the same time, the sense of occasion which video can bring to our experience of the music suddenly at the end underlines the involvement of the audience. Fischer-Dieskau has had it enthralled from start to finish. Yet with next to no apparent effort.

The other advantage of the format is the sheer theatricality of the performances. And gestures are never either spurious or self-conscious. Although Fischer-Dieskau certainly knows how to command, maintain and build stage presence. There is nothing gratuitous. Yet the singer's looks and concentration additionally convey the intensity of the music and the performance. Significantly, the relative placing of piano and singer, not to mention the interactivity between the two, merely aids our appreciation of how one of its greatest interpreters of the medium understands and conveys the greatness of the song cycle in the age of recording. Neither pianist nor singer is performing to, nor scarcely for, either audience or camera. Still less for themselves. Perhaps for Schubert. But – especially in the case of Winterreise – for its protagonist.

The bonus rehearsal session in which Fischer-Dieskau and Brendel discuss and prepare their performance is worth the very reasonable (at under US$30) price of the set alone – provided you understand German… there are no subtitles. The booklet for this DVD reminds us that Fischer-Dieskau first sang Winterreise in public when he was 17, in Vienna in the winter of 1942/43, when the performance was interrupted by an air raid.

Fischer-Dieskau's Winterreise, is legendary of course. In command not only of every syllable, but every nuance for the entire duration, the baritone has the additional, and surely essential, talent of projecting the harmonies, tonalities, tempi and even the pauses in such a way that the overall tragedy and hopelessness of the cycle is both unmissable in their impact and searing, shocking in emotion; yet not histrionic either: there's every reason for the journey to end where it does. In songs such as "Die Wetterfahne" [tr.2] Fischer-Dieskau fairly declaims the lines. His manner is open, forward and plain… yet it's never plaintive. The beauty of Fischer-Dieskau's voice is to the fore; as is its projection. At times little or nothing seems to be left in reserve in terms of volume and clarity, open articulation and unalloyed eminence (indeed the perspiration on the singer's neck is alarmingly evident). This will seem a risk on first exposure. But as the cycle reaches its terrifying conclusion, the emotional intensity is surely second to none on record.

Brendel, of course, is right where he should be – at every turn. Listen to the delicacy yet forcefulness of his accompaniment at the start of "Erstarrung" [tr.4]. He neither pushes nor holds back, neither gratuitously complements nor contrasts. The chordal and arpeggiated movement somehow becomes one with the desperate import of the text. As the pace drops ever so slightly in the last half dozen bars, the Lied is always a Lied, it's a work of art. But it's also very much about living.

Although in his conversation on the other DVD Fischer-Dieskau advocates the view that Schubert is both Classical and Romantic, this Winterreise is as Romantic as can be… articulation is held to emphasize melancholy phrasing; vibrato indicates mood; the singer's facial expressions convey above all resignation. None of it is overdone. Here is not a roseate crystal, as the equivalent works of Schumann may be described. But a crystalline rose. Deflection, reflection, refraction and even distortion as through a tear there most certainly are.

Two years before his retirement from public performance in 1993, Fischer-Dieskau, apparently somewhat reluctantly, agreed to perform Die Schöne Müllerin for the Schubertiade at the Montforthaus in Feldkirch (Austria). Austrian TV initially sent a single camera to cover the event as a brief news story. But so special did it become clear to the TV producers that this event was going to be – particularly since András Schiff was accompanying Fischer-Dieskau for the first time at Feldkirch – that another camera was sent for; and the entire recital was captured. This DVD is the result.

Fischer-Dieskau's singing here too is fresh, unlabored and highly communicative. It is, though, the delivery of a "seasoned", experienced singer. He never lacks enthusiasm. But articulates the words of each song as much to contribute to an overall sense of the cycle's sentiment as gauchely to "explain" events or sentiments. But Fischer-Dieskau was nearly 70 and barely so nimble vocally – even in material in which he was completely at home – as he had been in Winterreise. Nevertheless the projection and direction of the text to Schubert's poignant melodies has surely never been so persuasive as when under the total command of Fischer-Dieskau. For instance, the warmth, care and almost wrapping (though not coddling) immediacy of the closing of "Der Müller und der Bach" [tr.20] are highly memorable. There is involvement, pathos, a touch of regret and a slightly greater one of wistfulness. This balance is what marks Fischer-Dieskau out from lesser interpreters. It's born of detachment, for sure; but even more of empathy with the very soul of Schubert and his vision.

This Schöne Müllerin is a careful, somewhat "low key" account characterized by understatement, focus, gentleness and softness… listen to the pace with which "Morgengruß" [tr.9] unfolds, for example: there's sensitivity, intensity yet a calm detachment. Surely what both Schubert and the cycle's poet, Müller, intended to convey. Not the resignation of Winterreise, for sure; but not particularly optimistic.

This DVD also has a "bonus" conversation lasting 20 minutes or so between Fischer-Dieskau and musician/actor, Franz Zoglauer, at the Schubertiade of 1985. It's in German; though this part of this DVD has a variety of subtitles – including those in English. (These can be used during the songs themselves on both DVDs too.) Fischer-Dieskau places Schubert in musical-historical context with interleaved documentary (including footage from performances by a much younger Fischer-Dieskau) from Zoglauer. Schubert the romantic. And Fischer-Dieskau explores the relationship in performance between composer, performer(s) and audience. The balance must be worked for: a distance and a total involvement by the performer in what s/he is doing. Not show or bombast. Again, understated, factual. Yet illuminating in the extreme. The singer's modesty in his opinions humbles us as much as his deftness as a performer. At the same time we gain some insight into the significant measure of control on which Fischer-Dieskau insists during performance… stage entries, lighting, absence of applause between songs and so on. That Fischer-Dieskau aims for inquisitiveness, lack of pre-empting the outcomes, for differences between performances according to the audience comes as no surprise when you listen to his superb singing. Freshness again. The interview also covers Fischer-Dieskau's misgivings about our possible over exposure to music and the arts. Although not unique (the singer has written widely on music, after all), it's a useful insight. But this item rather oddly ends with his son's cello playing, rather than Fischer-Dieskau's urbane, observant and unassuming words.

The documentation that comes with the DVDs is minimal… brief scene setting paragraphs in German, French and English, some photographs and lists of the titles of the two cycles' Lieder. The acoustic is spacious and reverberant for Winterreise and surprisingly dry in the case of the Schöne Müllerin. Fischer-Dieskau's voice is more closely miked than is the piano of Schiff; though this is less marked in the case of Brendel and Winterreise.

Admirers of Fischer-Dieskau shouldn't hesitate to buy and get to know this set. It has all the magic that he always brought to Schubert, these cycles and the art of the Lied. But an oddly transparent magic which serves only to underline his technical skill, perception and indefinable communicative gifts. The only other Winterreise with Brendel is the CD on Philips (464739-2); there is no other recording (of Die Schöne Müllerin) with Schiff. In his interview Fischer-Dieskau admits that the Lied is a "thing of the past". Experience the music-making on these DVDs and you'll either doubt him; or at least believe it still has a living and valuable past.

Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey