Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation of Schumann is without peer
In the two-year history of this article series, we’ve yet to touch on any classical music. I have to say that I find this odd, as the classical album scene is rich as it is complex. A quick search of the classical charts today shows a Top Ten made up of solo violin works, the “Piano Guys,” Andrea Bocelli’s attempt at a pop-classical crossover album — in effect, not much of profound and lasting value. And so, for this rendition of Headphones On, it’s time to turn back the clock to 1985 when a classical record dropped that would become a seminal interpretation of Schumann’s art song; baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s heart wrenching take on the cycles Dichterliebe, Liederkreis, and other assorted songs, produced by Deutsche-Grammaphon.
A bit of background: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a 20th century baritone who was perhaps the best interpreter of 19th century German art song. World renowned soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had him, “a born god who has it all.” Robert Schumann needs no introduction, but for those less familiar with the 19th century composer’s art song, his song cycles Dichterliebe and Liederkreis are among the best examples of the German tradition of expressing the fullness of poetry with a singer and a pianist.
I would never have the audacity to critique Schumann’s work, so this review will rest solely on Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation of it. I’ll also refrain from speaking to Christoph Eisenbach’s piano, since I am not a collaborative pianist. We’ll take a quick tour through four works; Im wunderschönen Monat Mai and Ich grolle nicht from Dichterliebe, Die Lotosblume from Myrthen, and Auf einer Burg from Liederkreis.
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is a masterful interpretation. The text, poetry from Heinrich Heine (as is all of Dichterliebe), refers to the “magic month of May” in which the speaker describes a new love who comes to his heart as “a bright arrow winging,” and who leaves him “yearning… longing… and heart-wringing.” Fischer-Dieskau brings out the emotional depth of this work in his small, sprightly, and focused baritone. This record holds no moments more sublime than his approaches to the high Gs on “aufgegangen” and “verlangen.” They are as effortless as they are cathartic. He keeps himself in the center of the spotlight while at the same time never bludgeoning the line or the text; he achieves this in his subdued fricatives on the “auf” and “ver” as well as his relaxed, yet ever so controlled vibrato that echoes Fischer-Dieskau’s style.
The interpretation of Ich grolle nicht may initially strike the listener as somewhat counterintuitive. The poetry expresses the speaker’s emotions after a “love forever lost.” The speaker “bears no grudge,” insofar as the lost love had “night within her heart” and a “serpent gnawing” at it. Seemingly despite this, Fischer-Dieskau presents the song as boisterous and gruff as a hunting tune. It seems he boils the song down to its title text, Ich grolle nicht, “I bear no grudge.” He stands proud against his lost love in each delightfully strong ich-laut and ach-laut. This oversimplification seems to merit critique, until we arrive at the A# in the final strophe. It is primal, haunting, and Fischer-Dieskau’s onset to the note is as if he approached a middle C— that is to say, really, really good. However, it is this primal aspect that reminds the listener that the heartbreak might be a little more real than the grudgeless speaker admits in words. It is a cry for help that would never be found in the text of the poem. That’s what Fischer-Dieskau does so well; revealing the unseen emotional depth of a poem through his voice. His interpretation may seem uncanny for what could be considered a breakup-poem, but ultimately his take makes a great deal of sense.
I hesitate to criticize one of my idols, of which Fischer-Dieskau is certainly one, but his interpretation of Die Lotosblume leaves something to be desired. Heinrich Heine’s poetry regales a lotus and her lover, the moon. Fischer-Dieskau’s matter-of-fact interpretation comes off as lacking compared to the richness of the poetry. There are highlights to be sure; his approach to “zittert” is effective in expressing the lotus’ tremble, as is his sudden shift in tone when the second stanza begins to speak about the moon. Yet his didactic interpretation of the first stanza doesn’t really speak to the “dreaming” flower who waits in the “sun’s majestic light” for the evening.
Auf einer Burg peerlessly expresses helpless depression; Fischer-Dieskau’s droning, speechlike, and harrowed baritone matches this affect down to the slightest detail. He stretches from note to note as if the line were a sort of molasses. The poetry describes an ancient knight who, turned to stone atop a high mountain, while far below in the verdant river valley a wedding party sails along, full of music and life, while the bride weeps. The Romantic imagery which fills the poem is lost in Fischer-Dieskau’s version. The saturnine knight and the shocking twist of the weeping bride are real players in this interpretation. This draining and gloomy piece showcases the great baritone’s ability to use one tonal color so meticulously that with it he explores the depths of an emotion. He plods artfully.
Fischer-Dieskau’s work in this collection is peerless. He sets the standard for art song time and time again, and this work is among my personal favorites. Each song is worth a listen. They might not make their way into a modern classical chart. They might not even find their way out of the college music history classroom, or the living room of an eccentric professor (or the AirPods of this Rover editor). But if you let them, they might just find their way into your heart. Corny? Perhaps. True? Absolutely.
Zach Pearson is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies with a second major in Music. He is a proud resident of South Jersey, and enjoys clarifying that the term Taylor Ham is contrary to the natural law. He can be reached at email@example.com.