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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Winterreise D911
1. Gute Nacht
2. Die Wetterfahne
3. Gefrorne Tränen
4. Erstarrung
5. Der Lindenbaum
6. Wasserflut
7. Auf dem Flusse
8. Rückblick
9. Irrlicht
10. Rast
11. Frühlingstraum
12. Einsamkeit
13. Die Post
14. Der greise Kopf
15. Die Krähe
16. Letzte Hoffnung
17. Im Dorfe
18. Der stürmische Morgen
19. Täuschung
20. Der Wegweiser
21. Das Wirtshaus
22. Mut
23. Die Nebensonnen
24. Der Leiermann
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone
Alfred Brendel, piano
The Rehearsal (bonus documentary)
Rec.: 1979, Siemensvilla, Berlin, Germany.
Sound format: LPCM stereo
Picture format: 4:3
Picture standard: NTSC
Region code: 0
Subtitles: GB, D, F, I, E
TDK DVWW-COWINT [73:00 (Winterreise); 56:00 (The Rehearsal)]

This is a biased review. I am an unconditional fan of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a lover of Schubertís lieder, and especially of the song cycle Die Winterreise. Recorded in 1979 - arguably not the period when Fischer-Dieskau was in his prime - this DVD presents a "studio" recording of the work; that is, not an actual performance in front of an audience.

It begins with a shot of Fischer-Dieskau standing next to the piano, in the standard position of solo singers, with Alfred Brendel sitting in position waiting to begin. At first, Fischer-Dieskau seems rigid, uncomfortable, not at all as he was when performing in front of an audience. I only saw him perform live once - from the eighth row centre, of the Salle Pleyel in Paris, singing Schumann lieder, in 1986, if my memory serves me correctly - but there was a great difference in his posture, his attitude, his body language. The same is the case with other live performances that I have seen filmed: Fischer-Dieskau is generally more mobile, more relaxed. Rarely looking at the camera, his gaze remains generally fixed at some point in the distance, whereas when performing live, he would make eye-contact with the audience, adding to the intimacy of his performances.

But Fischer-Dieskau is a consummate artist. While his physical aspect may surprise, especially those who have seen him perform live, this in no way detracts from his performance. I can think of few performers who have mastered a composerís oeuvre as Fischer-Dieskau has mastered the works of Schubert, and it shows, just as one can hear it in just about all of his recordings of Schubertís lieder.

Since this is not a live performance - there were obviously many takes, most of a few songs at a time, some of a single song - Fischer-Dieskau never really has that comfortable attitude that he had live. However, some of the songs show him in perfect form: he sings Der Lindenbaum, for example, with the subtle, moving tone that one expects, his range, tone and timbre are near perfect. Auf dem Flusse is one of those songs where emotion bubbles over, and Fischer-Dieskau performs this brilliantly. When singing Rast, Fischer-Dieskau starts with laconic humility before advancing through a full range of emotions, giving a brilliant performance. And his expressions and tone of bliss in the pastoral parts of Frühlingstraum, contrasted with the more turbulent sections of the song, are perhaps the finest example of Fischer-Dieskauís artistry.

All throughout the song cycle, Fischer-Dieskau shows an expressivity and a broad palette of emotion that set him apart from many other lieder singers. As he approaches the later songs in the cycle, including some of the shorter ones, such as the brief Der stürmische Morgen and Täuschung, one can see how deeply absorbed Fischer-Dieskau is in the work. When the takes cover several songs, as is the case with these short songs, the profound expression of concentration on Fischer-Dieskauís face is quite moving. One might almost think that this man managed to turn singing into a form of meditation. When he sings Das Wirtshaus, and sings the words Bin matt zum Niedersinken, Bin tödlich schwer verletzt, one cannot but think that he is indeed mortally wounded. The haunting final song, Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), which sums up the work, marrying an ethereal melody to a somewhat banal text, is one of the most delicate to perform, but Fischer-Dieskau brings his decades of experience to play to make this an unforgettable ending to the cycle. As the camera fades on Fischer-Dieskauís face, with the final piano notes drifting away, one cannot ignore the perfection that this artist has refined over decades in singing this group of songs.

The performance of this, his signature work, is one of beauty, profundity, and intense emotion. Unless one is really averse to his performances of Schubert, it is hard to not be moved by the intensity he brings to the cycle. Alfred Brendel is also excellent, and it is rare to hear such subtlety in the accompaniment; the subtlety of his touch in Die Krähe, for example, shows his full understanding, but also his understanding of his role, here, as "mere" accompanist. The two men make a near-perfect partnership. (Note that Fischer-Dieskau and Brendel also recorded a studio version of this work in 1985, which is still available.)

Technically, the filming is generally uninteresting, and the lighting is dim; many of the close-ups of Fischer-Dieskau are such that one side of his face is in near-total darkness. Also, not enough attention is paid to Brendel; I would have preferred seeing his part of the performance a bit more. As for the sound, the recording is far from perfect; at times, I could hear some distortion when Fischer-Dieskau reaches the highest volumes (this playing the DVD through a stereo connected to excellent speakers), and the piano often sounds dull and poorly miked.

As for the "bonus"... Iím not one for bonuses, making-ofs, documentaries, and the like, though occasionally, a classical music DVD will contain something of interest. I donít see the point of coupling a film of Fischer-Dieskau and Brendel rehearsing this work, when a rehearsal is, generally, of a lesser quality than an actual performance. Unfortunately, this documentary is not subtitled, and, since I donít speak German, I cannot judge whether the conversations between Fischer-Dieskau and Brendel are of any interest; the performances, as always in rehearsals, are not always complete, and are not of the same level of intensity as the main program.

Nevertheless, while this performance is not the best of Fischer-Dieskauís many recordings of this work, and perhaps not the best filmed version (I recall that one was filmed at some point in Paris, and broadcast on the Mezzo television channel some years ago ... Perhaps it, too, will be released on DVD some day) no fan of Fischer-Dieskau should pass this up.

Kirk McElhearn

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