Here’s how I remember my early encounters with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: I slide the record out of its paper sleeve, drop it gently on the turntable, lower the arm and, after the throat-clearing hiss of needle on vinyl, slip for an hour into his world. His tone is light and warm as alpaca, but the landscape he conjures is craggy, treacherous, and cold, the darkness of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise. That mixture of comforting voice and caustic sentiment captivated me, as it did so many others. Rage never sounded so exquisite.
Fischer-Dieskau’s career overlapped almost completely with the era of the LP. From the late 1940s until the early 1990s, he appeared regularly in recitals and operas, but millions of listeners knew him from the almost indecent intimacy of his recordings. Lieder are wisps of music that can dissipate on their way from a concert stage to the back of an ample hall. Records allowed us, the legions he bewitched, to lie on the bed and let him minister to tender souls. He used the microphone’s sensitivity and allowed nothing to be lost or go missing. He zoomed into a line of verse or a few bars of music to reveal the song’s microscopic topography — a landscape that changed each time he approached it.
He was a master of detail, so let’s dip into minutiae for a moment. Listen, for instance, to “Erstarrung,” the devastating fourth song from Die Winterreise. The title means “Numbness,” but the violently bubbling piano part hints at barely contained emotions, as the singer confesses: “I search the snow in vain for the traces of her tread.” Almost immediately, we envision the narrator alone in the middle of a frozen field, his face inches from the frigid ground, his scalding tears slicing through ice to the soft, warm soil of the past. In his first recording, made in 1955 at the age of 30, Fischer-Dieskau delivers that image with thrilling bitterness, so that the words meinen heissen TrÃ¤nen (“my hot tears”) toll like a clanging bell. A quarter-century later, he returned to the studio with the same cycle (and the great pianist Gerald Moore), and this time, the line soars weightlessly, with more legato, and in that tiny alteration, everything has changed. Instead of challenging, he is imploring; instead of blaring his wounded pride, he is searching for new ways to abase himself.
That may be a lot to read into subtle inflection, but this is music of obsession, and Fischer-Dieskau made recordings to be heard again and again, savored, and scrutinized. His singing rewards compulsive listening. That is exactly what some critics have had against him. They find him precious and stilted, so detailed in his interpretations that the essence leaches away. That almost sounds convincing — until you lower the needle on Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, and its opening burst of endearing clichÃ©s (“May,” “buds,” “love,” etc). Fischer-Dieskau sings the curling tendril of melody with utter simplicity — no knowing nudges here, except perhaps for a tiny pop on sprangen (“sprang”) — and leads the listener gently into the cycle’s emotional depths.
In the years after World War II (in which the teenaged baritone served as an army stablehand), Fischer-Dieskau represented the best of European culture. With that downy voice and baby face, he made an effortless connection between public art and private feelings. As soon as he opened his mouth, it became clear that German culture was about far more than national pride. He aged into a handsome star who was apparently indifferent to his own stature and immune to the distortions that come with fame. As his immense and wide-ranging discography attests, he never became a caricature of himself — never evolved into the fussy, mannered Herr Professor that could have so easily been his destiny.
He never lost the ability to knead together drama and nuance either. In Mahler’s intense Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) he burrows into the unstable emotional seesaw of old folk songs and refined modernity. Despite the lightness of his voice, he unfurled a supremely elegant performance as Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. In spite of his Prussian reticence, he gives a poignant humanity to Verdi’s miserable jester, Rigoletto.
And somehow he set aside his congenital dignity long enough to unstopper great reserves of comic pathos in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff.
The role of the large-livered high liver is miles away from the inner quiverings of Schubert’s songs, and yet I need only hear the first syllables of Falstaff’s disdainful attack on the idea of honor (“L’onore! Ladri!”) to know once again that I will stick with Fischer-Dieskau until he has dispensed the last drops of whatever passions he has on offer — longing, joy, fury, self-pity, pride or, in this case, scorn.