Two obituaries from this weekend’s papers. For some, it is profane to link these two men in a single headline.
I didn’t get to hear Fischer-Dieskau live very often, but one occasion I remember was a concert performance of Wagner’s “Parsifal” in Munich in the late 1980s, when he, toward the end of his career, was singing Amfortas. With the arrogant ignorance of youth, blissfully unaware of Fischer-Dieskau’s extensive operatic experience in Germany, I wondered what a Lieder singer was doing taking on Wagner, and found him hard to hear, but was duly impressed, and gradually won over, by the total serious commitment and subtlety he brought to the performance. Little did I in my ignorance know what a phenomenal opera singer he was in his prime. Today, a quick look at YouTube provides ample evidence of his importance in this realm. It says a lot about his power as a Lied singer that he was good enough at anything else to overshadow — at least for American listeners — his operatic achievement.
Lied is a specialized taste for some, and excellence in Lied is a nuanced and delicate commodity. It took me years of listening fully to appreciate Fischer-Dieskau’s phenomenal artistry. And if other singers, like Gerard Souzay, more completely captured my heard, Fischer-Dieskau remains, undeniably, the benchmark.
Above: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1966 sings “Gute Nacht” from Schubert’s “Winterreise,” with Joerg Demus accompanying.
Here’s Herbert Breslin on Fischer-Dieskau, in a passage from our book The King and I that’s vintage Herbert, at once insightful and irreverent and gleeful about pushing over sacred icons.
“Fischer-Dieskau... had an almost priestly attitude about singing and about being who he was. High-class is not quite the term I’d use to describe him; I’d say he was more highfalutin’. He gave the impression that his bodily emanations, shall we say, didn’t smell. Plenty of aficionados seemed perfectly willing to believe it. I publicized events like Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth [Schwarzkopf] doing a concert of Hugo Wolf Lieder at Carnegie Hall, with Gerald Moore at the piano. In the classical music world, that’s about as gold-plated as it gets. Working with prestigious events like that helped build my reputation. But my God, a whole evening of Wolf: how boring.”