Inspirational, distinguished German baritone and a proselytiser for the art of lieder
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the distinguished German baritone, has died aged 86. His protean career was surely unique, as he sang and recorded more vocal music than any who came before. In particular, he broached more lieder (German songs) than any of his predecessors of the genre, his recordings running into the hundreds. Many of these songs he recorded several times over: for instance, he made no fewer than eight recordings of Schubert's Winterreise.
This truly incredible output was the result of an inquiring mind, an insatiable desire to tackle any and every song he could find, and to be a proselytiser for the art of lieder and singing in general, all these underlined by an instinctive wish to achieve perfection in his craft. More than that, he was an inspiration to the vast number of singers who have followed his example in this field, and made the singing of lieder a common experience. He also created an audience for this kind of music-making. Look at the concert and radio listings, look at the myriad discs of songs released in the CD age, and you will hear the benefits of his pioneering effort.
Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin and studied there with the veteran lieder artist Georg Walter, then after the second world war with Hermann Weissenborn, who partnered him at the piano in early recitals. But many of his first successes were in opera in Berlin. He made his stage debut there in 1948, as Posa in Don Carlos at the City Opera, where he would go on to be heard in most of the major baritone roles, Italian and German. From 1949 onwards he was appearing regularly at the Vienna State Opera and at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. He also sang at the Bayreuth festival from 1954 to 1956 as the Herald (Lohengrin), Wolfram (Tannhäuser), Kothner (Meistersinger) and Amfortas (Parsifal).
In 1961 he created, magnificently, the ego-mad Mittenhofer in Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers at the Schwetzingen festival and in 1978 the title role in Aribert Reimann's Lear at Munich, an overwhelming portrayal. His Covent Garden debut came in 1965 when he created an immense impression as the impassioned Mandryka in a new production of Richard Strauss's Arabella under Georg Solti. He returned later to portray Verdi's Falstaff, a large-scale but somewhat unidiomatic reading.
Tall, with expressive features, Fischer-Dieskau was a riveting figure on stage and a not inconsiderable actor. Nobody who caught him as Mandryka, Hindemith's Mathis or Wolfram is likely to forget the experience. Among other outstanding roles which he recorded for posterity are Count Almaviva, Don Giovanni, the Flying Dutchman, Telramund in Rudolf Kempe's classic set of Lohengrin, Busoni's Faust, Barak in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, and both Oliver and the Count in the same composer's Capriccio.
One of Fischer-Dieskau's first and most moving portrayals on disc was as Kurwenal in Wilhelm Furtwängler's legendary 1952 recording of Tristan und Isolde. Another classic recording with the German conductor was of Mahler's Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen. He twice recorded the same composer's Das Lied von der Erde, first under Paul Kletzki, then with Leonard Bernstein, taking the three movements usually sung by a mezzo-soprano and making them very much his own.
His enormous repertory also included many choral works. Besides recording many of Bach's cantatas, he was a sympathetic Christ in both that composer's Passions, an imposing Elijah in Mendelssohn and one of the original soloists in Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, the baritone contributions written specifically for him. Britten in 1965 composed his Songs and Proverbs of William Blake for Fischer-Dieskau, just one of the many commissions his singing inspired.
Yet it was with his lieder that he achieved his greatest deeds. He recorded all the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf and Strauss suitable for a male voice. He worked on them first with Gerald Moore, doyen of pure accompanists, and then was partnered by a host of distinguished solo pianists and the conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, each of whom inspired him to refreshingly new insights.
Fischer-Dieskau had a full, firm and resonant baritone, which could be honed down to the most delicate mezza voce. It was used with the utmost care in managing and projecting the text. He could on occasion be too emphatic in his treatment of words and was sometimes accused of overloading climaxes, but these were only the downside of a singer who was totally immersed in everything he undertook. An excellent linguist, he was almost as happy singing in Italian, French and English as in his native tongue, and he spoke English with virtually no accent.
In a career lasting more than 40 years, there was, as the years went by, inevitably some deterioration in his tone, but he compensated for the decline with a new lightness of approach and an even deeper penetration into the meaning of each song, as his 1986 recording of Winterreise with Alfred Brendel reveals. After he had retired from singing in 1992, Fischer-Dieskau took up another career reciting literary texts, often associated with song. He was also willing to give private lessons to carefully chosen singers to whom he imparted his immense experience as an interpreter.
He published a book of memoirs, Nachklang, in 1987, translated into English as Echoes of a Lifetime. It was an unusual autobiography in showing a man who, for all his many achievements, was uncertain of himself. That reflected the impression made when you met him. He was initially shy, but you always felt that behind the quizzical, sly, humorous eye and manner lay a man of philosophical bent, perhaps amazed himself at what his genius had led him to achieve.
He is survived by his fourth wife, the soprano Júlia Várady, whom he married in 1977, and three sons by his first wife, the cellist Irmgard Poppen, who died in 1963.
• Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone singer, born 28 May 1925; died 18 May 2012
Alan Blyth died in 2007
Read an interview with Fischer-Dieskau by Martin Kettle, published in the Guardian in 2005
"I am very happy with the ease and versatility with which I can share my content with my audience, clients and business partners alike."