Summary for the Busy Executive: The kid does more than okay.
As far as I know, Fischer-Dieskau recorded Schwanengesang five times, at least twice with Gerald Moore. This, I believe, is the first, curiously enough completed over a seven-year span, 1951-58. I confess I'm a Schwanengesang freak. In a collection where I have tried my best to avoid repertoire duplication, I find myself overrun by a gaggle of Schwanengesangs. But, then, my admiration for Schubert's songs has steadily grown over the last thirty years, even if only because great singers keep at the repertoire. Beyond that, Schubert redefined what a song could be, and that from his earliest examples. He gave greater emphasis to the details of his texts, rather than establish a general mood – even the same mood for every stanza. He opened up the dramatic possibilities of the Lied. An older composer like Zelter, tended to think of songs in much the same way as folk-song. That is, every stanza had the same music. The trick lay in finding a suitable tune for all stanzas. Schubert wrote his share of these, but even here he innovated. His accompaniments were less guitar-like and commented on the verse as much as the singer did. Think of a song like "Die Stadt," where phantoms swirl through the cityscape, all evoked by the piano. In fact, Zelter didn't like Schubert's songs. He thought of the younger man as somehow not playing the game. As Schubert matured, his songs changed. Many of them foretell writers like Wolf, Mussorgsky, and Mahler. Many of them give the shock of the modern even today, especially the Heine songs.
Schwanengesang, as you probably know, isn't a true song cycle, in the sense that Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are. Schubert's publisher assembled them from two main groups of songs the composer left at his death. Consequently, the cycle tends to break in two – songs by Rellstab and songs by Heine, with a pendant song by Seidl. The Heine songs interest me more, which makes the Rellstab songs harder to put across. Indeed, I very often judge a performance of this work by how well the singer does the first half. It is, after all, relatively hard not to make an effect with a song like "Der Doppelgänger." Although writers have tended to regard Schwanengesang as a publisher's ploy – a bogus cycle to increase sales – and singers initially offered only selections, at least since the Fifties with Hans Hotter, singers have tended to perform all of them in a group, rather than as individual songs. The fact is, they do make a nice recital group, even if they lack a coherent "story." The relatively simple Rellstab songs followed by the Heine provide a progressive intensity, with the beautifully light "Die Taubenpost" to burn off the gloom.
Fischer-Dieskau began recording these songs in his twenties. Compared to his prime, he sang "darker," as if trying to make up for what was essentially a small voice – something he felt plagued by throughout his career. I once heard him live, in Mahler's Kindertotenlieder with Ormandy and the Philadelphia backing him up – one of the great concerts of my life. In the lobby afterwards, I asked a singer friend of mine how Fischer-Dieskau could be heard so clearly, given what was obviously not a huge voice, like Hotter's or Treigle's. He told me Fischer-Dieskau had such an efficient technique that every ounce of breath went into the sound and such a command of color that he cut through the orchestral mass with apparently no effort at all. Fischer-Dieskau's attention to musical detail and psychological depth of interpretation I so took for granted by this time, I could afford to concentrate on relatively trivial matters.
You can't miss either of these qualities even at the relatively early date of these recordings. Compared to his later outings, the musical nuances and points of interpretation are less fussy, less detailed, even less pedantic. He had such control over the musical line that he could bring out anything he wanted, particularly at a soft dynamic, where it's harder. Listen to "Du bist die Ruh," one of four fugitive pieces on disc, and marvel at the flawless spinning-out of tone, the shades of soft and softer, the effortlessly smooth crescendo to the climax, all with a line that never breaks or wobbles. As a vocal student, I happen to have studied this song in college. It was all I could do to keep my voice from collapsing, and my ribs hurt besides. Forget about any shape to the melodic line: I was busy doing other things, like trying to make it to the end. Fischer-Dieskau makes the song sound effortless – a patent lie. Even at the start of his career, he had incredible skill. He also had a searching mind. Gerald Moore, who knew Schubert's songs pretty damn well, said that he learned from Fischer-Dieskau. The singer could build a "complete" interpretation from the beginning, but his recordings of Schwanengesang don't go to the same interpretive well or resort to the same tricks. He obviously changed his mind about things. This first recording I find the most "natural" of all. Especially in the Rellstab songs, he conveys – not simplicity exactly – but an emotional directness not incompatible with intelligence, and the Heine songs are, quite frankly, devastating, as they should be.
But of course it's not all the singer. This performance represents, above all, a collaboration between Fi-Di and Gerald Moore. Moore takes an orchestral approach to his accompaniment, evident in the very first song, "Liebesbotschaft." We not only marvel at the singer's complete assimilation of the music – his superb intonation, his mastery of vocal line – but at the support he gets from Moore. During one of my listenings, I was called out of the room and heard what sounded like a Mendelssohnian string orchestra murmuring in the background. It was, of course, Moore at the keyboard. "Kriegers Ahnung" opens with a pianistic evocation of a dead march and effortlessly, seamlessly changes color throughout the song's many shifts of mood. One could point to several great moments in every song, each of which stands as a great interpretation overall.
The sound is a bit ancient, but not an assault of crackles and pops, and the general sonic ambiance is pretty clear. In short, if you haven't got Schwanengesang by Fischer-Dieskau, arguably the finest Lieder singer of his time, start here.
Copyright © 2005, Steve Schwartz