Superstar Fischer-Dieskau: qualified admiration from a critic

For better or for worse, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has been a dominant presence in the art of singing and interpretation. His career, now in its fifth decade, has paralleled the unprecedented growth of recording companies and the early popularity of LP records, which changed the way people listened to music. These musings came over me during three of the four concerts the singer offered an adoring New York public a few weeks ago - his first appearance here in eight years. And given that he is now in his early 60s, one cannot help sensing that the visits will be fewer and fewer.

I must confess to never having fully fallen under the Fischer-Dieskau spell. I have often admired the artistry, the musical insights, and the dedication to the art of interpretation. But two things have been constant barriers to my total acceptance.

First, Fischer-Dieskau's voice has never been classically beautiful. That of the famous Italian baritone Tito Gobbi was not ``beautiful,'' either, but I always found that artist to be superbly communicative of the emotional core of the music at hand. With the German baritone, one always sensed that the top range of notes did not match the rest of the instrument, that those notes were thin, throaty, hollow shadows of the lower ones. This could be bothersome in art song or lieder recitals, and downright unpleasant in opera.

Second, Fischer-Dieskau has layered on his performance style an emphatic, word-conscious crispness that often spills over into hectoring and clipped phrasings and is commonly termed ``barking.'' This has carried over into his operatic work, also - which can be heard on innumerable recordings, as well as in most major houses in Europe, but never at the Met or anyplace else in the United States.

Fischer-Dieskau came along at the perfect time. World War II had recently ended, and he was released from a prisoner-of-war camp near the Italian front. He returned to his native Berlin penniless, and soon was invited to record for the American RIAS radio station there. It was the beginning of a historic career.

Shortly thereafter, he was heard by Walter Legge, the celebrated producer for EMI (in the US, Angel) Records, who by this time was married to German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a kindred spirit in terms of mannered artistry.

Before long, Fischer-Dieskau had recorded and re-recorded the staples of the lieder repertoire, as well as opera arias, and his first complete operatic roles. He became an indispensable fixture on EMI and various German recordings. These recordings circulated throughout the world, often as definitive performances, becoming the standard by which all other performances - and singers - were judged, either consciously or unconsciously.

By the '60s, Fischer-Dieskau had become an institution and the darling of the press, which shut its ears to the vocal deficiencies and proclaimed this to be the voice of the century.

An example of the hyperbole he has inspired could be found in the current program biography, which states categorically that he ``persuaded musicians and public alike to accept and revere Mahler.'' The fact that it was Leonard Bernstein who finally changed the world's mind about the Mahler oeuvre (after the work of the likes of Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer) seemed to have escaped that biography writer's purview.

Ironically, Mahler got Fischer-Dieskau's New York appearances off to a bumpy start with a performance of the orchestral song cycle ``Kindertotenlieder'' (``Songs on the Death of Children''). The singer and the conductor, Giuseppe Sinopoli, were not on the same wavelength. The former was striving to bring the songs musically and interpretively to life; the latter was off in his own world, preoccupied with balances and self-serving soft dynamics amenities that acknowledged not at all Fischer-Dieskau's often impressive interpretive insights.

And in the all-Schumann lieder recital that followed four nights later, the choice of repertoire was so severe as to magnify the flaws and make the listener aware of how changed the voice is at this late state in his career. At times, in very soft songs such as ``Meine Rose,'' his hushed, sustained, delicate tones were bewitching, even magical.

But it was not until the all-Wolf program with which the baritone closed out his New York appearances that the full measure of a Fischer-Dieskau evening could be communicated and experienced.

This program found the singer able to project humor and gave audiences a sample of the acting that is said to be outstanding, but that US audiences have ever been denied.

A large range of songs was offered, from the tragic, to the horrific, to the frankly coy and humorous.

At his best, the singer was charming, spellbinding. And he had spectacular accompaniment (in both programs) from Hartmut H"oll, who established himself as a major - perhaps the major - song accompanist on a professional stage today.

Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.

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