Take me to your Lieder

You will find yourself inside the most astonishing aural architecture that has ever been constructed. Frightening, awe-inspiring, forbidding at first. But when you realise that these pieces were written by people like you who believe first in foremost in love and hope, bliss, justice and connection, and that they want to take you by the hand and cause your heart to burst in your breast for joy and wonder and pity, the fear melts away. Not something one is always ready for, any more than one could eat haute cuisine every day. But when you need it, oh the difference …

A legacy

Fisher Dishcloth was a man who inspired in Mozart operas and in Wagner too (and this is a rare thing for a singer to be able to do. Placido Domingo is the only comparable figure of our time I can think of. And our own Bryn Terfel perhaps) He naturally held my attention. I still think his Hans Sachs in the Eugen Jochum recording of the Mastersingers of Nuremberg is unmatched for sheer intelligence, insight and emotional depth. In many ways, the character of Hans Sachs is more the Lear – the absolute summit in Wagner – even than Wotan: Fischer Dieskau achieved it with thrilling modesty, intensity, intellect and a complete lack of ostentation. He also I think stands as one of the very greatest Count Almavivas in all of the Marriage of Figaro’s recording history. He made his mark too with modernists like Hindemith and was personally selected by the composer to be there for that monumental moment in 1962 when Britten’s War Requiem first shattered the world.


So pure and smooth was Dieskau’s voice (it never seemed to flicker or strain in the higher swoops of the tenor line or lose power and richness down in the darker or sometimes more buffa tones other works demanded of him) so pure it was that it incurred – I shall not say the wrath – but the curiosity of Roland Barthes – whose word was holy writ in the English departments of early 80s universities when I was a student. In an essay entitled “On Grain” Barthes wondered, in the recording industry as it was in the late 70s, with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic as the supreme arbiters and bestsellers worldwide, if all those silken legatos and perfectly moulded rubatos had stopped us from making the primal connection between violin string and bowed and rosined catgut; whether we ever were again allowed to hear – from virtuosi like Tuckwell and Parry in the horn section or James Galway in the wind –  the spittle rattling in the tubes and dripping from the sump-hole to the floor. Would we hear the squeak of the guitarist’s fingers on the fret-board and the buzzing rattle of the reed on the lips of the oboist? All seemed to be tending toward tones and timbres of the utmost smoothness, an aesthetic that appeared to scorn what in photography we clearly know to be grain.

And when it came to vox humana, Barthes suggested, the magical purity, beauty and flexibility of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (about whose superlunary gifts and intellect no one in the world was in the slightest doubt), dangerously (for Art), almost transcended the human sphere. Barthes allowed himself to wonder, as legitimately he might, whether this was a fashion or a permanent new product of technological advances and technical training in the human voice. And he couldn’t see it as all good. If every singer had tried to sing like DFD I would have agreed whole- heartedly, but of course they didn’t. We had Eberhard Wächter, Giuseppe Taddei and a host of alternative baritones whose voices were as different from Dieskau’s as from Frank Sinatra’s or Elvis Presley’s. Or indeed from each others’.

Well it pleased me that the hippest voices in criticism, the French structuralists and deconstructionists, were not the vain, inverted snobs or recondite obscurantist poseurs so many took them for, and that they had as high and passionate a sense of taste as any educated person might strive to achieve. I have always believed great music is for everyone, for it speaks – more than any other genre – directly to the individual, soul to soul – shorn of fashion, hipness, stories, context and baggage. Their works are for us to listen to as we will. Or won’t. But I shan’t beat that drum (out of time) again.

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