Goethe-Lieder, Heine- and Lenau-Lieder (Fischer-Dieskau, Barenboim)*



I suppose that Fischer-Dieskau just records whatever he likes, in every sense. At any rate I can’t discern any other principle of selection, in view of the wilful omission of Sie haben wegen der Trunkenheit from the otherwise complete male Goethe songs and the equally puzzling inclusion of some rather jejune juvenilia in the Heine and Lenau settings. However, all confirmed Wolfians will sensibly stop reading at this point and rush out to place their orders. Their confidence that they will thereby acquire much magnificent music, some of it unfamiliar and indeed unavailable, is not misplaced. This box may have some rather rough edges and corners, but it contains some rare treasures. In any case, Lieder-lovers never expect to find songs without warts. What they crave is lifelike human features made manifest in music,

    Perhaps there has lately been a touch of Tussaud in some of Fischer Dieskau's smoothly-finished expressions, but on this disc even the wax works, warmed into real feeling by Wolf's creative fire and the deftly shaping hands of Barenboim. Despite appearances, that metaphor owes little to the present performance of Prometheus, the towering Goethe masterpiece about the Titan who defied Zeus and created mankind in his own image, with the aid of fire stolen from heaven. This song, together with the Goethe Rattenfänger, the Pied Piper who enchanted not only children hut that entire populace whit the magic of his music-making, might have served to symbolise all Wolf's most potent art. But as it happens these are the only two interpretations that strike me as basically unconvincing. The prelude to Prometheus is not really “gross” or “kraftvoll”; it hasnt the gross musical tonnage it takes to embody the Titanic. Der Rattenfänger seems to run away with the performers more than with the listeners. But elsewhere Barenboim and Fischer-Dieskau are in impressive command of medium, material and genre alike.

    The pianist gets pride of place here because the piano does, both in the Lied in general and in Wolf in particular. Further, it seems to me that Fischer-Dieskau has, very sensibly and commendably, decided to revitalize his own art by a transfusion from the vein of keyboard virtuosity so richly exploited by such soloists as Richter and Barenboim. Their assertive and dynamic approach would constrain any singer to re-think previous interpretations, if only in self-defence. This process can be quite painful as well as gainful. Some of the tempi seem decidedly odd to me; thus the same direction (strict, but not dragging) is taken at two quite different speeds, in the first Cophtisches Lied and Beherzigung. Again, the welcome and authentic prominence of the piano part occasionally overshadows the voice (as at the reprise in Epiphanias). That seems venial enough, although it was a pity to disturb, even slightly, the repose of Anacreon.

    Much more disturbing is the tendency to vocal over-emphasis, as if in response to the piano’s dynamics. At times the music sounds like a bone of contention between voice and keyboard; Epiphanias for example seems needlessly rough and rowdy. This syndrome affects even the quieter songs. No doubt it was the subconscious fear of being drowned that led the voice to raise its “lights over the river” to well above the required level in an otherwise exquisite account of St. Nepomuks Vorabend. Finally there are occasions when Fischer-Dieskau actually seems to be distracted by listening,  no doubt in genuine admiration, to what the pianist is doing. In Der neue Amadis there is a wholly uncharacteristic textual slip. In Genialisch Treiben, where the poet is compared to Diogenes trundling his tub (“wie Sankt Diogenes, mein Fass”) the barrel is trolled out through three bars too many; which seems to make rather too much of a Fass.

    In other ways too this set, especially the Goethe songs, sounds more a concert performance than a studio recording. But the blemishes are massively outweighted by the living vitality that results. At least we are continually confronted not by the tame or even stuffed Wolf one sometimes encounters, but by the real fierce living creature. The outcome is a welcome and invigorating sense of recognition and authenticity. Lieder may not be your favourite music, nor Wolf your favourite Lieder-writer, nor the Goethe Lieder your favourite Wolf songbook. But just give these records a hearing, if only out of curiosity; and the first four sides at least may well convince you that here is a truly great and original composer.

    Shortly after his death he was accorded a place beside Schubert and Beethoven – literally, at his funeral. This new box pleads the case for continued parity, with eloquent and memorable advocacy. And it is an especial (because rare) pleasure to be able to report that the highly civilized and competent notes and translations supplied with the texts are a very real help in that cause. So in my view is the voice/keyboard balance and the sound quality in general.


© gramophone, Mar. 1976 (p. 1500)