Tuesday, May 22, 2012

He told stories through song

The deaths of Donna Summer and Robin Gibb attracted most of the attention, so let's take a moment to remember a great classical singer who passed on within a couple of days of them.  

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died May 18 at age 86, devoted nearly nearly a half-century to the concert hall, opera house and recording studio. The German baritone sang an almost crazily wide range of music, from Baroque cantatas to Verdi and Wagner operas to demanding contemporary works. There was one branch of music that he was identified with above all, though: the German art-song heritage epitomized by Franz Schubert. 

Listen to the young Fischer-Dieskau sing Schubert's "An Die Musik," a song about the joy and comfort that music provides: 

Last month I interviewed Twyla Tharp about "Come Fly Away," her Broadway musical based on recordings by Frank Sinatra. The show needs no dialogue, she said, because Sinatra is the storyteller. Not only was Sinatra "a consummate musician" and "a terrific singer," she said, but "he was a real actor, so when he delivers these lyrics, there's the emotion of a monologue." 

I don't want to push it too far, but she could've been describing Fischer-Dieskau.  Like Sinatra, he could be silky smooth when it suited the song, as you heard in "An die Musik." Especially in his earlier years, his voice's mellowness and luster could seduce the ear. 

But Fischer-Dieskau had a whole range of colors, energy levels and intensities at his command -- right up to a shout for the awful news in Hugo Wolf's "Der Feuerreiter," a song about a mill that's set ablaze by a supernatural horseman. This video doesn't show Fischer-Dieskau as he sings it, but it does supply a line-by-line translation of the spooky text: 

Only once did I hear Fischer-Dieskau in person. It was in 1989, only a few years before he retired from the stage. The program consisted of Schubert duets for baritone and mezzo-soprano, and most of it was unfamiliar to me. 

Because this was in Austria, the printed program didn't supply English translations, and my modest command of German wasn't enough to keep me well in touch with the words. But Fischer-Dieskau could sometimes put over a mood through a facial expression, stance or gesture as much as through the music. 

As an example of what I'm talking about, I'll leave you with a video of him from that same year, 1989, in Brahms' "A German Requiem." He's singing part of the 39th Psalm, talking about how our days are numbered.  He holds the score -- at least, I assume it's the score -- like a minister drawing strength from his Bible.  Even if you don't understand the words, I'll think you'll be able to sense that he's discussing matters of life and death.