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CLASSICAL  July 2005

CLASSICAL July 2005

Subject:

Fischer-Dieskau's First Schwanengesang

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 18 Jul 2005 08:39:42 -0500

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      Franz Schubert
          Lieder

*  Schwanengesang
*  Erlkoenig
*  Staendchen
*  Nacht und Traeume
*  Du bist die Ruh

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)
EMI 7243 5 67559 2 MONO Total time: 65:06

Summary for the Busy Executive: The kid does more than okay.

As far as I know, Fischer-Dieskau recorded Schwanengesang five times,
at least twice with Gerald Moore.  This, I believe, is the first,
curiously enough completed over a seven-year span, 1951-58. I confess
I'm a Schwanengesang freak.  In a collection where I have tried my best
to avoid repertoire duplication, I find myself overrun by a gaggle of
Schwanengesangs.  But, then, my admiration for Schubert's songs has
steadily grown over the last thirty years, even if only because great
singers keep at the repertoire.  Beyond that, Schubert redefined what
a song could be, and that from his earliest examples.  He gave greater
emphasis to the details of his texts, rather than establish a general
mood - even the same mood for every stanza.  He opened up the dramatic
possibilities of the Lied.  An older composer like Zelter, tended to
think of songs in much the same way as folk-song.  That is, every stanza
had the same music.  The trick lay in finding a suitable tune for all
stanzas.  Schubert wrote his share of these, but even here he innovated.
His accompaniments were less guitar-like and commented on the verse as
much as the singer did.  Think of a song like "Die Stadt," where phantoms
swirl through the cityscape, all evoked by the piano.  In fact, Zelter
didn't like Schubert's songs.  He thought of the younger man as somehow
not playing the game.  As Schubert matured, his songs changed.  Many of
them foretell writers like Wolf, Mussorgsky, and Mahler.  Many of them
give the shock of the modern even today, especially the Heine songs.

Schwanengesang, as you probably know, isn't a true song cycle, in the
sense that Die schoene Mullerin and Winterreise are.  Schubert's publisher
assembled them from two main groups of songs the composer left at his
death.  Consequently, the cycle tends to break in two - songs by Rellstab
and songs by Heine, with a pendant song by Seidl.  The Heine songs
interest me more, which makes the Rellstab songs harder to put across.
Indeed, I very often judge a performance of this work by how well the
singer does the first half.  It is, after all, relatively hard not to
make an effect with a song like "Der Doppelgaenger." Although writers
have tended to regard Schwanengesang as a publisher's ploy - a bogus
cycle to increase sales - and singers initially offered only selections,
at least since the Fifties with Hans Hotter, singers have tended to
perform all of them in a group, rather than as individual songs.  The
fact is, they do make a nice recital group, even if they lack a coherent
"story." The relatively simple Rellstab songs followed by the Heine
provide a progressive intensity, with the beautifully light "Die Taubenpost"
to burn off the gloom.

Fischer-Dieskau began recording these songs in his twenties.  Compared
to his prime, he sang "darker," as if trying to make up for what was
essentially a small voice - something he felt plagued by throughout his
career.  I once heard him live, in Mahler's Kindertotenlieder with Ormandy
and the Philadelphia backing him up - one of the great concerts of my
life.  In the lobby afterwards, I asked a singer friend of mine how
Fischer-Dieskau could be heard so clearly, given what was obviously not
a huge voice, like Hotter's or Treigle's.  He told me Fischer-Dieskau
had such an efficient technique that every ounce of breath went into the
sound and such a command of color that he cut through the orchestral
mass with apparently no effort at all.  Fischer-Dieskau's attention to
musical detail and psychological depth of interpretation I so took for
granted by this time, I could afford to concentrate on relatively trivial
matters.

You can't miss either of these qualities even at the relatively early
date of these recordings.  Compared to his later outings, the musical
nuances and points of interpretation are less fussy, less detailed, even
less pedantic.  He had such control over the musical line that he could
bring out anything he wanted, particularly at a soft dynamic, where it's
harder.  Listen to "Du bist die Ruh," one of four fugitive pieces on
disc, and marvel at the flawless spinning-out of tone, the shades of
soft and softer, the effortlessly smooth crescendo to the climax, all
with a line that never breaks or wobbles.  As a vocal student, I happen
to have studied this song in college.  It was all I could do to keep my
voice from collapsing, and my ribs hurt besides.  Forget about any shape
to the melodic line: I was busy doing other things, like trying to make
it to the end.  Fischer-Dieskau makes the song sound effortless - a
patent lie.  Even at the start of his career, he had incredible skill.
He also had a searching mind.  Gerald Moore, who knew Schubert's songs
pretty damn well, said that he learned from Fischer-Dieskau.  The singer
could build a "complete" interpretation from the beginning, but his
recordings of Schwanengesang don't go to the same interpretive well or
resort to the same tricks.  He obviously changed his mind about things.
This first recording I find the most "natural" of all.  Especially in
the Rellstab songs, he conveys - not simplicity exactly - but an emotional
directness not incompatible with intelligence, and the Heine songs are,
quite frankly, devastating, as they should be.

But of course it's not all the singer.  This performance represents,
above all, a collaboration between Fi-Di and Gerald Moore.  Moore takes
an orchestral approach to his accompaniment, evident in the very first
song, "Liebesbotschaft." We not only marvel at the singer's complete
assimilation of the music - his superb intonation, his mastery of vocal
line - but at the support he gets from Moore.  During one of my listenings,
I was called out of the room and heard what sounded like a Mendelssohnian
string orchestra murmuring in the background.  It was, of course, Moore
at the keyboard.  "Kriegers Ahnung" opens with a pianistic evocation of
a dead march and effortlessly, seamlessly changes color throughout the
song's many shifts of mood.  One could point to several great moments
in every song, each of which stands as a great interpretation overall.

The sound is a bit ancient, but not an assault of crackles and pops, and
the general sonic ambiance is pretty clear.  In short, if you haven't
got Schwanengesang by Fischer-Dieskau, arguably the finest Lieder singer
of his time, start here.

Steve Schwartz

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