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Obituary: The great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau dead at 86

By John Terauds on May 18, 2012

Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with one of his favourite accompanists, Gerald Moore.

German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, considered to be one of the finest interpreters of German art song of the 20th century, has died in Bavaria, 10 days shy of his 87th birthday.

Although he had retired from singing in 1992, for years afterward he continued to conduct and offer master classes, sharing a lifetime of insights with younger singers.

Two of his most notable German pupils were baritones Thomas Quasthoff and Christian Gerhaher.

His flexible, lyric voice, as much as a thick volume of the collected Lieder of Franz Schubert, were as much a part of my childhood as Pokémon or transformers have been to others. Through his dozens of recordings of song and aria — many reinterpreted as the decades went by — he revealed the magical depths and possibilities behind each printed note.

The singer’s repertoire covered the full two-and-a-half centuries of German art song. He also sang opera, but rarely outside his home country.

This singer worked best without a set or costumes.

Fischer-Dieskau would conjure entire scenes of love, abandon and grief with a toolbox of inflections, pauses and breaths that he came to wield as a master craftsman and artist.

In his memoirs, Gerald Moore, the equally legendary piano accompanist of the 20th century, wrote of Fischer-Dieskau: “He had only to sing one phrase before I knew I was in the presence of a master.”

The singer’s childhood experiences no doubt had an influence on the power of his artistry.

His first public recital, of Schubert’s Winterreise, was cut short by an Allied bombing raid on Berlin, in 1943. He was 17.

As he told the Guardian in an interview several years ago, “the whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two-and-a-half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.”

He even remembered where the break had occurred: “It was ‘Rückblick’ (Backward Glance), so we looked back to the part already completed.”

Drafted into the German army along with any man with the strength to march and carry a gun, Fischer-Dieskau spent the last two years as an Allied prisoner of war — and entertained his fellow inmates with Lieder recitals.

Fischer-Dieskau no doubt had a chance to put many of his war experiences into perspective when Benjamin Britten invited him in 1962 to sing in the premiere of the War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by German bombs during the war.

The baritone graced pretty much every storied concert hall in the world, and woked with all the great conductors. His favourite was Wilhelm Furtwängler, in whom he found a kindred flame of musical humanity.

“He once said to me that the most important thing for a performing artist was to build up a community of love for the music with the audience, to create one fellow feeling among so many people who have come from so many different places and feelings,” Fischer-Dieskau told an interviewer. “I have lived with that ideal all my life as a performer.”

The book of Schubert Lieder is at my mother’s. When I last visited, in March, I started playing my way through — and the voice that attached itself to the songs in my mind was Fischer-Dieskau’s.

Lucky are all the people who have been able to experience the same associations over the past 70 years.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Julia Varady and three sons, including conductor Martin Fischer-Dieskau, who had a tumultuous two-year tenure with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

Here are two clips: Schubert’s Im Frühling (In Spring), with pianist Sviatoslav Richter in 1978, and Gustav Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I have let go of the world), with conductor Riccardo Chailly and the Berlin Radio Symphony in 1989:

John Terauds

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