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Franz SCHUBERT (1791-1828)
Die Schöne Müllerin

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
András Schmidt (piano)
recorded live, Feldkirch, 20 June 1991
bonus: interview recorded 1985
DVD-all regions
TDK DV-CODSM [83:00]


Memory plays tricks. For this reason recordings and film provide an opportunity to measure perceptions against some form of objective base. Therein lies the value of this DVD, for it shows Fischer-Dieskau, one of the greatest Lieder singers of all time, as he was. This is a live recording of his last performance at the Schubertiade festival at Feldkirch in the Vorarlberg, Austria, in June 1991. He was finally to announce his retirement eighteen months later.

Moreover, the concert was something of an occasion. He had not, for various reasons, performed Die Schöne Müllerin for twenty years. It must have been interesting for the audience to hear how he might present the much loved cycle after many further years of contemplation, particularly how he would adapt his performance to the changed texture of his voice. Unlike mechanical instruments, the human voice is an integral part of the human body, and, as the body ages, the voice changes too. There are notable examples of singers who can keep their vigour well into old age – Hugues Cuénod was singing, privately, past the age of 100. But his last recording, at the age of 85, was a work of love, rather than any illusion of former brilliance. When this film was made, Fischer-Dieskau had just passed his 66th birthday. Although his voice was noticeably thinner and more fragile than it was in his prime, by shepherding his resources judiciously, he would have been able to delight his audience, who were clearly all rooting for him, (In the film, I think I recognise a friend in the balcony). Shared memories of earlier glories must have warmed all present, bathing the experience in a glow of nostalgic memory. It seems almost cruel to listen to this performance critically, for it cannot have seemed, then, to have been anything but a success. Yet the sad reality is that there are many moments when technique just about rescues tessitura, when passages are forced, and words harshly tossed out. But it would be unfair to judge this for the singing – to have any souvenir of such a career is worthwhile. His singing here is more bearable than later but perhaps it's better to listen with allowances.

The film is much more important as a record of Fischer-Dieskau's performance style. His relative immobility on stage has, in recent years, been cited as some kind of rule by which other singers must be judged. Alas, it is artificial and destructive. Obviously, a singer needs to conserve his or her energy and lung capacity for the production of the voice. But it does not follow that body rigidity should always result. The main criterion should always be expression, and voice. All else is extra. Photographs and descriptions of singers of the past show that the idea of rigidity just didn't come onto the radar. This film shows Fischer-Dieskau happily leaning on the piano, bending from the chest, twisting his torso, moving his arms, lifting his heels, his face vividly expressive. He was technician enough to know that if ever he needed physiology to boost his performance, it would have been then, in his later years. Yet he was also artist enough to realise that what a good singer does with his body is instinctive, personal and natural to his performance as a whole. The myth of immobility is destructive when it's used to disparage good singers and mislead others into assuming form is as important as substance. Hopefully the myth will be now put into perspective.

The bonus with this DVD is an interview from 1985. It's reverential, with a few amusing clichés. Fischer-Dieskau, to his credit, responds with humorous candour, pointing out that he conducted only for four years and didn't like doing opera. He also tells the interviewer that he didn't push his children towards musical careers. His son, however, remembers differently. His father handed him a cello when he was five and was kind but firmly insistent. It's a cheerful reminder that memory on its own is fallible.

Anne Ozorio

 



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