The voice was one of the most distinctive of the 20th century. Other German baritones resorted to declamatory barking at moments of high drama; Fischer-Dieskau’s supremely lyrical instrument was all but incapable of that, maintaing a polished, thoroughly distinctive tone that seemed to require little of the usual physical effort that came with operatic singing. He had no audible shifts between registers. The intelligence behind the voice was supremely cultivated. Every conceivable vocal color seemed available for expressing insights that grew more detailed as the years went on. And with only piano accompaniment, there was nothing to get in the voice’s way.
Yet as the singer’s career wound down — first in opera, and then in 1992 with his departure from the concert stage — the man himself emerged as unknowable. Well-wishers arrived backstage the Academy of Music to discover that the owner of the incredibly suave voice was a heavy smoker. When his surprisingly impersonal memoirs, titled Reverberations, emerged in 1989, one discovered, with a bit of probing, that he was married four times. Even Walter Legge, who produced many of his early recordings for EMI, said in later years that he never felt as if he really knew Fischer-Dieskau.
In many ways, the baritone wasn’t unlike many German artists who had seen the worst of World War II and were compelled to turn the page. He was part of Germany’s defeat on the Russian front and was sent to Italy after being captured by Allies in last days of the war. His disabled brother starved to death by the Nazis — “quickly,” Fischer-Dieskau wrote in diaries. So his post-war life was his art, about which he was an omnivore.
“Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau has the biggest repertory of any singer who ever lived, has made more recordings than anybody else in history and continues to look younger as the years go on,” wrote New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg – in 1974, which was nowhere near the end of his career.
In the next decade, critics remarked that Fischer-Dieskau had recorded all of the vocal repertoire that was suited to his voice, and willed his way into much else that wasn’t right for him. By the end of his recording career, his reach extended well beyond recordings of all the male-voice songs by Schubert, Brahms, Liszt and Wolf, and into obscure ballads by Loewe, Verdi’s comic Falstaff with Leonard Bernstein, excerpts from the role of Wotan in Die Walkure and even, near the end, a duet with his longtime rival, Hermann Prey, in the rarely heard Schubert opera Alfonso und Estrella.
Throughout this vast body of work, an arc emerges. The Fischer-Dieskau of the early 1950s had a more rounded voice and youthful emotionalism that beautifully embodied the romantic sensibility of the art song. In his middle period, his much-discussed sheen of detachment set in. In many ways, he offered a guided tour of any given song while also embodying it.
Vocal decline, however, seemed to force him to rethink his art. Like some great Shakespearean actor, one of his last great stage roles was King Lear in 1978 — in the Aribert Reimann opera version, titled Lear, that used modern Germanic dissonance to go to the dark heart of the story with supreme fearlessness. Fischer-Dieskau seemed to use everything he knew and then some. Of his many recordings of Schubert’s harrowing song cycle Die Winterreise, many feel his most compelling was the last, a video made in 1990 with Murray Perahia. The singer was close to retirement, the pianist was suffering from a hand injury, and their mutual impediments gave them an unprecedented edge.
From there, he took up conducting, a career that wasn’t a mere postscript. For all the skepticism such conversions tend to prompt, Fischer-Dieskau, at his best, projected a kind of life-and-death intensity that was particularly at home with Berlioz (Harold in Italy) and Brahms (Symphony No. 4). So gratifying was this emotional metamorphosis that you wish he’d had another decade as a singer and then yet another decade as a conductor. But Fischer-Dieskau’s many vocal descendants — from Thomas Hampson to Christian Gerhaher — not only follow in the footsteps of his art, but also seem aware of the limitations of his mid-career reserve. They don’t have it. And they learned well.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com
Dietrich-Fischer Dieskau: A cross section
Schubert: Die Winterreise Fischer-Dieskau at the dawn of his career, in a youthfully emotive performance from 1948. Audite.
Mozart: Don Giovanni This rare 1961 video from the Deutsche Oper Berlin is primitive black-and-white TV but shows the operatic Fischer-Dieskau opposite Elisabeth Grummer and Pilar Lorengar, conducted by Ferenc Fricsay. Arthaus Musik.
Hugo Wolf: Goethe-Lieder Two things that could shake mid-career Fischer-Dieskau out of his comfort zone were Wolf and the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Here they are live in 1977. Orfeo.
Reimann: Lear His last operatic stage role, and not for the faint of heart. Gerd Albrecht conducts the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. Deutsche Grammophon.
Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle. With his last wife, Hungarian soprano Julia Varady, Fischer-Dieskau has tremendous chemistry and sings Bartok’s opera in its original language. Deutsche Grammophon.
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 and Symphony No. 4. Fischer-Dieskau conducts pianist Konstantin Lifschitz in a live 2002 Berlin Concert House Orchestra performance. Orfeo.