German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is more than singer, he is an institution.
In a career that started in the late 1940s and continued until his retirement in 1993 (he continues to perform as a conductor and pianist), Fischer-Dieskau recorded more than 1,000 LPs of classical music by composers from Bach to Zemlinsky. This is about twice as many recordings as the nearest runner-up, omnipresent tenor Placido Domingo.
One online CD retailer offers 225 titles featuring Fischer-Dieskau, many of them containing multiple discs, like his 21-disc set of Schubert songs in three volumes, or his six-CD compilation of songs by Hugo Wolf. Fischer-Dieskau is also a gifted painter and author. His refinement is reflected in everything he does.
So when Deutsche Grammophon decided to honor him with a 21-CD 75th-birthday box set, it seemed obvious to ask the baritone's opinion on what to include. Unfortunately, they did not follow his advice. In a recent, somewhat testy online interview with cdnow.com, Fischer-Dieskau complained that his input was not decisive in making up the collection, which includes works by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, and lesser-known composers like Pfitzner and Othmar Schoeck.
When the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was honored by her recording label, EMI, in 1995, the honchos accepted all her recommendations for what should be republished.
Part of Deutsche Grammophon's problem may have been that Fischer-Dieskau's achievement is so vast, no single record company can encompass it. He began his career with EMI in 1951, continued with Deutsche Grammophon, and in the latter years of his career, when DG showed less interest in his projects, he continued with smaller labels like Claves, Bayer, and Orfeo. All the periods of his career contain excellent work, the kind of transcendently poetic, possessed performances that made the composer Paul Hindemith tell him, "You're not a singer, you're a bard!"
Fischer-Dieskau should have been honored in a manner akin to the Philips series on great pianists, which borrowed old recordings from many different labels to construct a full portrait of each artist.
The Deutsche Grammophon birthday box contains an unforgettable recital of Wolf songs, accompanied by the mighty Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. But most of the piano playing is by the weak-tea accompanist Jorg Demus and the cool and uninvolved Englishman Gerald Moore. To hear more of Richter and Fischer-Dieskau together, a musical ideal by any standard, listeners must look for CDs from another label (distributed by Qualiton).
Likewise, a 1972 Schubert recital in which Fischer-Dieskau was partnered by the composer/pianist Benjamin Britten has just appeared out of the oubliettes of musical history (distributed by Koch Records). As with Richter, Britten's playing reveals how comfortable this singer was on empyrean heights, where an uncanny sense of rhythm, sweet tones, and crisp diction made him a daunting model for generations of singers. He retains to this day a Prussian mania for perfection: In daunting master classes that make Maria Callas seem cuddly as a voice teacher, he continues to intimidate terrified tyros by urging them to "be elegant."
In the last 14 years of his career, this mighty performer found the ideal regular accompanist, a pianist of spiky originality and great emotional depth, Hartmut Holl.
Fischer-Dieskau's splendid work with Holl, among the best of his career, isn't included in the boxed set, but can be found on stellar CDs containing Weber, Brahms, Spohr, and Mendelssohn (all on the Qualiton label).
This partnership is also preserved on a remarkable video (Warner) of a Schubert recital by Fischer-Dieskau and Holl, marred only by the inclusion of a documentary from a French filmmaker, who gushes that "not liking Fischer-Dieskau is akin to not liking Michelangelo and Proust."
Despite this typical gallic giddiness, it looks likely that Fischer-Dieskau's name will live on in posterity alongside the great creators he has associated with for decades.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society